From Arab winter to Persian spring?

Special to

By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — Five years after the onset of the pro-democracy revolts against authoritarian rulers in much of the Middle East, the heady warm breezes of the Arab Spring have been replaced with swirling ill winds sweeping the region from Tunisia to Iraq. Governments were toppled, chaos ensued, and the genie of pent up political and economic frustrations turned violent.

Syria, Libya and Yemen are wracked by violence. Egypt stepped back from the brink.

Key regional states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia now nervously monitor radical reverberations. Israel remains hyper cautious. U.S. policy appears bemused.

The geopolitical shock waves from the Arab Spring continue through instability and civil war with tragic waves of refugees battering against Europe’s shores. Much of the chaos is political and is equally centered on the historic religious fault lines within Islam between the majority Sunni and the minority Shiites. Countries with a sectarian divide such as Syria are torn asunder.

'Arab Spring' did not evolve as some had hoped.
‘Arab Spring’ did not evolve as some had hoped.

Profiting from the chaos, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) a terrorist hyper-entity, has instilled a climate of hate, fear and intolerance from Tunis to the Tigris.

Ironically, in the midst of the regional instability, the Islamic Republic of Iran appears an improbable oasis of calm and beckoning commerce.

Once the U.S. and world powers signed the “nuclear deal” with Teheran last summer in Vienna, the Islamic Republic has shed its cocoon of sanctions and imposed isolation and regained a modicum of legitimacy despite being the same regime which gave a nefarious nod to state sponsored terrorism against Americans at the Khobar Towers, against Argentine Jews in Buenos Aires, not to mention, the killing of its own dissidents in the streets of Western capitals such as Paris and Vienna. And then there’s Tehran’s support of Syria’s Assad.

This is not to say that Teheran’s authoritarian theocracy has moderated as much as that with the lifting of sanctions on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear proliferation, the mullah regime is now fully taking advantage of long pent up business opportunities for trade and investment which has eluded Iran in the past decade.

After the Obama administration released over $100 billion in frozen assets, the Teheran rulers were flush with cash; enough at least to offset the dangerous dip in oil prices.

Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani is touring Western Europe on a shopping spree seeking both legitimacy and the opportunity to reopen the once lucrative trade and investment which pre-revolutionary Iran had with the world. On a state visit to Italy, he signed $17 billion in deals

Proceeding to Paris he inked an $25 billion order to buy 118 Airbus civil aircraft as well as restart co-production between the French Peugeot auto group and a local subsidiary to the tune of $500 million, and of course there’s petroleum deals for the giant Total energy company.

The Airbus deal is aimed at modernizing the aging fleet of the once-proud Iran Air, with state of the art European planes.

Manuel Valls, the French Prime Minister said, the two countries were “being reunited.” After all, “France for a long time turned itself towards Iran, fascinated by its history, attracted by its culture, seduced by this great nation which is so incomparable.” A nice turn of phrase, but it’s Persia, not the Iran of the Islamic Republic which he longs for. Is it the Islamic Republic of Iran which holds a near world record for public executions, or the country whose hit men killed a former reformist Iranian Premier Shahpur Bakhtiar in the streets of Paris? Or the Islamic Iran of entrenched gender discrimination?

Naturally, voices of moderate opinions inside Iran yearn for an opening from the sealed and sterile monochrome vision of the Islamic Republic and its aged Ayatollahs. An opening to the outside is warranted and overdue and may encourage reform. But at what price do we rehabilitate the pariah state ?

So as the Arab Winter deepens in violence and confusion, the Persian Spring approaches with brimming commercial optimism but hardly much of a hint of a long overdue human rights thaw.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014).