The greatest threat facing the world today is the spectre of Islamist terrorism. Solving it requires the intelligent reach out to regional allies that can contain and defeat Sunni Islamism in co-operation with the West. Perhaps surprisingly, prime among these potential Western allies is Iran.
Why Iran? Is it not a terrorist state? This is true to some extent. However the West has reached out to states associated with terrorism before- Saudi Arabia and Pakistan prominent among them. However it is important to bear in mind two major differences where Iran is concerned. The Iranian regime, while aggressive, illiberal and anti-Semitic, does not represent the Iranian people. The instinct of the ordinary Iranian is reformist as the recent elections bear out. As Iran further opens up to global markets, the emergence of an Iranian middle class will likely temper the worst excesses of the regime. The failed green revolution of 2009 shows the potential for rapid Iranian social change. It is the clerical regime which has the most to fear from the opening of the Iranian economy to the world in the long run. The other great factor is that the regime is rational. It does not want to be destroyed and has avoided overt confrontation with the United States. The recent nuclear deal has also bought time for Israel to modernise its’ defences, which will enable it to better neutralise any emerging Hezbollah challenge- the key extension of the Iranian threat.
There is global precedence for such an allegiance. During World War 2, the West allied itself with Josef Stalin, the brutal Soviet dictator. He was a mass murder who slaughtered millions. He lacked a moral compass. However, he also was the lesser of two evils. The West- and indeed Israel- now face the same choice all over again. The West may need to choose to ally with the lesser threat against the greater one. Furthermore Iran is no longer a closed society like Soviet Russia. There is real scope for the rise of an Iranian middle class which could temper the worst instincts of their regime, as their economy liberalises. There is nothing like capitalism to enable a nation to moderate and integrate. The same capitalist model which is so despised by Sunni Islamists who have launched many attacks on Israel and the West. The Iranian regime is not the West’s friend, but its’ people could be, and this should be the long term secondary aim- of toppling the regime by engaging the people. The most sensible way to do this, besides trade, is to ally with the country against the worse enemy.
Iran does not have aspirations to export its’ Shi’ite revolution to the West. The fact is that it has emerged as a de-facto ally against ISIS in Iraq. Persia has always been the great historical opponent of the Arab world. The same Arab world from which contemporary Islamist ideology emerged. The Wahhabi regime of Saudi Arabia has long exported an ideology that is not only austere and stringent, but is strongly sympathetic to extremist ideas. Iran can ultimately contain and defeat the threat of Sunni Islamism in the Middle East, supported quietly by the West. The intervention of Iranian supported militias made a difference in Iraq against ISIS, for example, helping to drive it back. The rise of Iran in the Middle East, far from being dangerous to the West, can actually be very beneficial for it as it can be the proxy which ultimately destroys the threat of many blends of extremist ideologies. It will require patience, and much caution, on the part of the West. Iran will need to be watched, bearing mind its’ own record of sponsoring terrorism. However it terms of the scope and scale of the threat it poses without nuclear weapons it is easily dwarfed by the extremists hiding in the shadows of Sunni Islam, the same unremittingly hostile Sunni world which surrounds and threatens Israel.
Iran could also help to contain the other global extremist centre, Pakistan. Though not yet a direct threat to Israel, it is developing medium range missiles that could target Israel in the near future. It has proliferated nuclear weapons technology to Iran and North Korea. It is also developing medium range missiles that could target Israel in the near future. Described as the ‘’epicentre of global terrorism’’ by former US Chief of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen, Pakistan has incubated a coterie of terrorist groups from the al-Qaeda to Lashkar-e-Taiba and it continues to support the Taliban. Few were ultimately surprised by the discovery of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad only minutes away from Pakistan’s equivalent of Sandhurst or West Point. Pakistan poses an immensely difficult problem. It has a massive population of nearly 200 million people. It actually has nuclear weapons- unlike Iran- and frequently blackmails the world with them. Iran can provide the logistics needed to sustain an effort to contain and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan, as well as their allies in the Haqqani Network and the Taliban.
All of this is an outcome which is ultimately beneficial for Western security and Israeli security. Islamism can only be undone by precise blows at the ideological heartlands of extremism by powerful proxies like Iran- the alternative is the overt and excessive commitment of Western ground troops everywhere- an outcome that is not good for the security of the Middle East and the world at large. Let Persia regain some of its’ old prominence in the Middle East again. It can help to destroy the enemies of the West without needing Western ground troops. This may aid the process of the creation of a new and liberal Iran. An outcome which could ultimately transform one of the most dangerous parts of the world for the better.