If you listen to Arab commentators today, they almost universally fear or harbor suspicions towards the Middle East's Shia revival. Despite the development of a local great power, one with the interests of the Arabs in general as well as the Shias in particular as an historically oppressed minority, many Arabs continue to be angered by the feeling that instead of pawns of the West, they have become pawns of Iran. But I think this judgment is premature and is influenced by a strong feeling in the Arab community that has existed since the rise of Islam, that the Arabs should be in charge of the Muslim states. No matter your opinion on why the Arabs dislike Iran, Iran has earned the position it has today, and in light of the end of US pressure on its nuclear program, the Arabs must recognize the unique and incredible opportunity they have today to work with Iran towards a better, more stable regional future.
I began thinking about Iran's role, and the notion that Iran's current power grabs were justified, over dinner on the West Side with Agha Shams and his wife. Sitting in a Persian restaurant where any trace of Arab heritage had been erased (the signs were, bizarrely, in ancient Persian script, not Arabo-Farsi script), we were talking about the US occupation of Iraq, and how it did not make sense for the US to leave at any point in the foreseeable future (nor would its allies to the South allow it). I then began to argue that Iran was a tremendous source of stability at this time, and that its role in Iraq's South and in Lebanon would, over the long-term ensure a more stable Iran and eventually a more stable region. Agha Shams was baffled, and so I tried to explain.
Iran is a nation of people extremely suspicious of foreigners and foreign influence (kharej/fesad-e gharb/etc), and for good reason- any look at Iran's history will bring to light multiple attempts by Britain, Russia, USA, etc to sabotage Iran's sovereignty and to take advantage of it. In 1980, after the US puppet regime had been overthrown, Saddam Hussein decided to get in on the act, and invaded Khuzestan province with the support of the entire world (minus Syria & Libya, among others). After hundreds of thousands of Iranians had been massacred on the field and gassed to death by chemical weapons (the 2nd and last time in history they have been used), a ceasefire was finally signed in 1988. The damage, physical and mental, was done. Iranians understood that after this point there was no one in the world they could rely on- neither the Arabs, nor the West, nor the East- to prevent them from atrocities and aggression. However, Iran at this time was weak, and focus moved back to the economy.
Then, in 2001, The Taleban was removed from power in Afghanistan, and in 2003 Saddam from Iraq. Suddenly, Iran's two major immediate enemies were removed, and, with the US about to choke them, Iran began to bite. As the US faltered in Iraq, Iran began supporting militias in the South opposed to US and opposed to the chaos of the post-invasion years. These militias managed to gain popular support and eventually created more stability than the US or UK had ever created. Today, Iraq's South is less violent than most of the country, and Iran enjoys a buffer zone against both US & possible KSA aggression (so, basically against the US). This buffer zone is a great mental support for Iran, because finally, the country that has managed to make Iran suffer so much has been neutralized, and Iran is busy building a friendly island of stability in the country's South. The uneducated talk of Iranian "interference" in Iraq- it is not interference to create peace where your enemies cannot, especially when the lack fo peace threatens your own stability directly. This is called helping a neighbor.
Meanwhile, during the Leb Civil War it became clear that Lebanon's large Shia population could not stand up against Israeli and US aggression, and so Hezbollah was created (and would receive much Iranian support). This organization was, technically, sectarian- but what wasn't in 1980's Lebanon? After the war, while maintaining a sectarian base, Hezbollah moved towards the center, compromising goals of an "Islamic state" for a pluralist democracy. Hezbollah became a major social services provider in lieu of the absent and neglectful Lebanese state, and it remained armed in recognition that Lebanese armed forces were frightfully weak in the face of Syria and as a result of failed promises on the part of the West in the Taif Accords. So Iran supported Hezbollah, as did many Lebs, especially during the July War. In the July War, hezbollah, and Iran, proved that they could stand up to Israeli aggression, and that they were a legitimate force for the defense of the oppressed of the Middle East. Hezbollah has said that it would not have gone to war if it had known the consequences, and most people agree that it should not have- but this point is irrelevant to our purposes (except to prove that Israel's use of force is generally way out of proportion to the threats posed- ie niether hezbollah nor iran demand annhilation of israel, which they have made clear repeatedly). Iran in Lebanon proved to the Arabs that it could fight as a stalwart of the Arabs, as a regional power they could depend on- but despite the sacrifice, much suspicion remains.
Iran, after years of being battered and double crossed by the Arabs and the West, has a legitimate excuse to demand buffer zones in Iraq and to extend its influence in other parts of the Middle East where it is welcomed popularly (South of Lebanon). Just as the USSR after WWII demanded a buffer against German aggression, Iran does the same. However, Iran must not make the mistakes the USSR did.
After years of aggressive US pressure, the US has finally backed off on Iran's nuclear program (I suspect in exchange for Iran's demand that the militias in Iraq lessen their fight, concurrently with the exchange of captured diplomats- it all happened in the same week), and there is less need for Iran to continue its highly defensive policies in Iraq. Iran finally has time to shift focus to its economy, and domestic elections over the next year NEED to yield a result that focuses less on external wars than with domestic economic progress, most Iranian's current concerns. Iran must stop being belligerent (as the USSR was) and instead work on internal economic development, with the hope that this development will spread benefits over time into the South of Iraq and later more of the Arab region. The Arabs, for their part, must welcome this investment.
Between 10-30% of Dubai is currently owned by Iranian nationals, and its current success would be substantially less without their capital inflows. If Dubai had closed itself to Iran, initially, it would not look like it does today. Iran has launched a charm offensive in the rest of the Gulf to capture hearts and eventually lead to greater economic exchange- if the Arabs in general follow suit, a larger economic flourishing is not far off.
What Iraq desperately needs right now is jobs, and if Iran is flowering economically, its sphere of influence in Iraq will do so too. Once young people in iraq have jobs, and since they are (in the south) controlled by a government they, for the time, generally agree with, greater stability will ensue. Iran can provide this stability.
Iran can provide a light for the region, but the Arabs must be receptive to it, and the Iranian people must make certain decisions at the ballot box. Arab suspicion of Iran, however, is useless and counter productive. Finally, the Arabs have a neighbor that is strong and is trying to help them, but if they continue to squander the opportunity ot move forward this will become just another defeat in a long list of Arab disappointments.