By Caroline Dougherty
No one predicted the tide of revolutions that has overwhelmed the Middle East in recent months, but now that the seeds of democratic reform have taken root, the democratic nations of the West must provide the necessary support if these fledgling democracies are to prosper. In the long run, a democratic Middle East would be better for the international community: greater market openness, free flow of information and protection of human rights. The democracies of the West have both the moral obligation and economic incentive to facilitate a successful transition to democracy. However, in order to reach this future ideal, the Middle East will have to undergo a precarious transition, but during this period of potentially dangerous transition, the spectre of Iranian hegemonic ambition looms large.
The rise of Iranian power poses a direct threat to global security; a declared non-status quo power led by an absolutist theocracy, the country is both dangerous and unpredictable. Of critical importance is Iran’s current development of ballistic missiles and potential to develop nuclear weapons by 2012. Iranian military prowess stands as a daunting future threat, but the eminent concern is Iran’s arming and financing of Lebanese, Palestinian, Afghani and Iraqi militant groups coupled with outspoken aims of annihilating Israel. External provocation also translates to internal human rights abuse. Disregarding any semblance of democratic values, the country executes more individuals than any other country without due process. Wikileaks recently released cables disclosing, as if it weren’t already clear, that the Iranian problem is not just a Western concern; Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE were revealed to have encouraged a military strike on Iran’s nuclear programme.
Iran’s influence has grown substantially since the forcible removal of Saddam Hussein, a staunch enemy of Iran. This rivalry has traditionally acted as the counter-weight to the regional influence of Iran. Now, with the Egyptian military focused on domestic reform and Saudi Arabia facing its own protests, the power void that began with Iraq now envelopes the greater Middle East. Iran is taking full advantage of the region’s destabilisation by attempting to assert greater regional influence. In an attempt to demonstrate the coming of a new regional order, Iran flexed its muscles this month by sending two naval ships through the Suez Canal en route to Syria. This passage was politically impossible for the last 30 years under the Mubarak administration, but now stands in direct contrast to the Israeli submarine that passed through the Suez Canal just last year.
The underlying message that Iran is attempting to send to the Middle East is that the new Egyptian government is coming into the fold of the radical axis consisting of Syria, Hezbollah, and Gaza’s arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas. As such, Egypt’s successful transition to a stable democracy is crucial to containing Iran and to promoting further democratic reform throughout the Middle East.
While the Egyptian people have gained a sense of empowerment that is inspiring and crucial for democratic development, the Israeli people have become potentially more vulnerable. Coupled with the spectre of a permanent rift with Turkey, the resignation of President Mubarak leaves Israel in alliance purgatory. Israel is now menaced close to home by Hamas, Hezbollah and Iranian warships carrying unknown cargo in the Suez Canal. Given Iran’s stated desire to obliterate Israel and Israel’s long history of battling mortal hostility, it is not difficult to foresee military action in the region that will far eclipse the current upheaval unless the threat of Iran is addressed.
Containing the spread of Iranian power can be accomplished through the democratisation of the Middle East aided by Western support. Instead of focusing on military intervention or the denouncement of the Iranian government, which may garner anti-Western sentiment in the Middle East, liberal democracies should provide economic aid and political guidance to all nascent democratic movements, including the one in Iran, in order to simultaneously strengthen democratic values and promote pro-Western sentiment in the region. There is nothing that the mullahs fear more than democracies on their doorstep.
The West, particularly the US, has a long, hypocritical history of supporting dictators over democracies, clearly stating its preference for stability over democracy, freedom or human rights. A key example of this preference is the US and Israel’s special relationship with Mubarak during his tenure as President. The formation of a new, anti-Mubarak government places Israel and the US in a precarious position. If democratic elections are successfully held, it is quite possible that the future Egyptian government will not view Israel hospitably. Now is the time for the US to lead and re-establish its aims as pro-freedom, not pro-status quo. Economic incentives and pro-democracy rhetoric can begin the process of rebuilding Western ties with the Egyptian people. For this reason, Western aid and guidance must begin now, before the Egyptian elections take place in five months time.
While Western democracies face anti-western sentiment in the Middle East for their association with oppressive regimes, there is also a sense of immense resentment towards the Iranian regime for both its brutality towards protestors and its hegemonic aspirations. Between political executions and armed suppression of demonstrators, the Iranian government, for all of its anti-Western glory, is actually seen as part of the problem, not the solution. This anti-Iran following presents an opportunity for the West to gain new allies where they are desperately needed. Thus, we must support the fledgling democratic movements in the Middle East, not least as part of our urgent efforts to stop Tehran in its tracks.