THE salient strategic fact in the Middle East today is the Iranian drive for regional hegemony. This Iranian objective is being promoted by a rising hardline conservative elite within the Iranian regime, centred on a number of political associations and on the Iranian Revolutionary Guards corps.
This elite, which is personified by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has received the backing of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Their aim is a second Islamic revolution that would revive the original fire of the revolution of 1979. They appear to be aiming for the augmenting of clerical rule with a streamlined, brutal police-security state, under the banner of Islam. Building Iranian power and influence throughout the Middle East is an integral part of their strategy.
The Iranian nuclear program is an aspect of this ambition.
A nuclear capability is meant to form the ultimate insurance for the Iranian regime as it aggressively builds its influence across the region.
This goal of hegemony is being pursued through the assembling of a bloc of states and organisations under Iranian leadership. This bloc, according to Iran, represents authentic Muslim currents within the region, battling against the US and its hirelings. The pro-Iranian bloc includes Syria, Sudan, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas among the Palestinians, and the Houthi rebel forces in northern Yemen.
Israel, despite lacking official diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, is also a key member of this camp. Unlike the pro-Iranian bloc, which has a simple guiding ideology of resistance to the West, the countries seeking to counter Iran are united by interest only.
The rivalry between these two camps now informs and underlies all-important developments in the Middle East. It is behind the joint Israeli-Egyptian effort to contain the Iran-sponsored Hamas enclave in the Gaza Strip. It is behind the fighting in north Yemen, as Saudi troops take on Shia rebels armed and supported by Iran. The rivalry is behind the face-off between pro-American and pro-Iranian forces in Lebanon. The insurgencies in Afghanistan and in Iraq are also notable for the presence of weaponry traceable to Iran in use by insurgents against Western forces.
Who is winning in this ongoing Middle East cold war? The rhetoric of the Iranians, of course, depicts their advance as unstoppable. The reality is more complex, and the past year has seen gains and losses for both sides.
First, within Iran the electoral victory of Ahmadinejad and the subsequent backing given to him by Khamenei represented a major advance for the Iranian hardline conservatives. Ahmadinejad subsequently confirmed his victory by forming a cabinet that is packed with conservatives and Revolutionary Guardsmen.
But the refusal of large sections of the Iranian people to accept the possibly rigged election and the unprecedented scenes of opposition in the streets of Iranian cities in recent weeks have severely tarnished this achievement.
The ongoing unrest in Iran probably does not constitute an immediate danger to the regime. But it surely indicates that large numbers of Iranians have no desire to see their country turned into the instrument of permanent Islamic revolution and resistance envisaged by the hardline conservatives. The domestic unrest thus hits significantly at the emerging regime's legitimacy, and their ability to promote their regime as a model for governance to the Arab and wider Muslim world.
Iran made major advances in Lebanon last year. The formation of the new Lebanese government in November in essence confirms Hezbollah's domination of the country. Hezbollah is the favoured child of the Iranian regime and its partner in subversive activity globally. There is now no serious internal force in Lebanon able to oppose its will.
In Gaza, the Iranian-sponsored Hamas regime is holding on. The Iranian investment is central to Hamas's ability to stay in power. The movement just announced a budget of $US540 million ($590m) for 2010. Of this, just $US55m is to be raised through taxes and local sources of revenue. The rest is to come from "aid and assistance". Hamas does not reveal the identity of its benefactors. But it is fairly obvious that the bulk of this funding will come from Iran. The Palestinian issue remains the central cause celebre of the Arab and Muslim world. The Iranian regime's goal is to take ownership of it.
But there have been setbacks here too. The Iranian resistance model failed in a straight fight with the Israeli Defence Forces in the early part of the year. Hamas's 100-man "Iranian unit" suffered near destruction in Gaza. The Hamas regime in Gaza managed to kill six IDF soldiers in the entire course of Operation Cast Lead. This is a failure, recorded as such by all regional observers.
In addition, someone or the other appears to be trying to demonstrate to the Iranians that the use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy is a two-way street. Hence the killing of 29 Revolutionary Guards in a bombing in October near the Iran-Pakistan border, and the mysterious explosion in Damascus last month that killed a number of Iranian pilgrims.
So at the beginning of 2010, the lines are clearly drawn in the Middle East cold war, and the contest is far from over.
Ultimately, like other totalitarians before them, the Iranian hardline conservatives are likely to fail through overreach. The inefficient, corruption-ridden and oppressive state they are coming to dominate is likely to prove an insufficient instrument to sustain their boundless ambition. Still, this process probably has a long way to run yet. Much will depend on the sense of purpose, will and resourcefulness of the Western and regional countries that this regime has identified as its enemies.
This is a contest for the future of the region. It has almost certainly not yet reached its height.
Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Centre in Herzliya, Israel.