Modern Iran seems to be forever sitting at a crossroads between Islam and the West, between reformists and conservatives, between rogue state and responsible international citizen. Whichever of these Irans is in ascendance, the country remains one of the Middle East's most important regional powers. And just as relations between Iran and 'the Great Satan' (USA) appeared to be thawing, along came Donald Trump.
The Liberal-Conservative Divide
For most of the last 100 years, power in Iran has swung like a pendulum between two very different views of the world. On one side, the liberals and Reformists, those who enjoyed the social freedoms of the Shah's Iran and rejoiced as President Khatami led a mini-revolution in the way the Islamic Revolution saw itself. Although it is always dangerous to generalise, it is the young and the urban who most often define this stream of Iranian society. Pitted against them all too often are the conservatives led by the clerical establishment, the guardians of the Islamic Revolution, and with a loyal rural heartland. They are the Ayatollah Khomeini's footsoliders, and those who swept (former president) Ahmadinejad to power in 2005 and kept him there. Historically, both have suffered at the hands of the other. It is Iran's eternal battle of ideas, and occasionally violence. And for now, they seem to have battled themselves to a stalemate, with neither holding sway, each keeping the other in check, watching and waiting to see what happens next.
Few countries hold as much power in the Middle East right now as Iran. Having taken up the mantle of defender of Shiites and their interests across the region, and having spent decades channelling funds into the coffers of friendly governments and movements, Iran now has a powerful voice in what happens in some of the world's most important conflicts. Iranian-backed Hezbollah is widely credited with propping up the Syrian government, fighting alongside government troops to turn back the march of Islamic State and other groups who would overthrow the Assad regime. In Lebanon and Iraq, both countries with Shiite majorities like Iran, Iran has advisors on the ground and provides financial support to ensure that its view of politics prevails. In this role, Iran provides a counterpoint to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States as regional powers; Iran has also been vocal in its defence of Shiite communities in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Perhaps more than at any time in recent history, Iran is one of the region's most important kingmakers and policy decisions made in Tehran will play a role in determining the future of the region. Which is, of course, just the way the Iranian government likes it.
Iran & the United States
Iran's relationship with the West, particularly the United States, has long defined the image the country has of itself and which it projects onto the world stage. The flashpoints have ranged from the CIA-backed coup in 1953 to the seizing of US embassy personnel in Tehran in 1979. Since the Islamic Revolution, the relationship has had far more lows than highs and remains one of profound mutual suspicion. Things began to thaw under President Khatami and many years of tough negotiations, sanctions and brinkmanship finally culminated in a mutual victory whereby Iran's nuclear program would come under international supervision in return for the lifting of sanctions. Iran was, it seemed, finally about to come in from the cold. And then, along came Donald Trump, who made the nuclear deal one of the foreign policy platforms of his campaign, threatening to rip it up should he become president. At the time of writing, President Trump had yet to do so, but his early indications were that it remained very much on his agenda. Add to this the Trump government's aim to ban immigrants from seven Muslim countries (including Iran) and it appears very possible that relations could once again take a turn for the worst.