Iranian President Ahmadinejad
Iranian President Ahmadinejad Reuters

Libya appears to be in, or at least on the verge of, a civil war between Colonel Gaddafi loyalists and armed rebels who just a few weeks ago were merely anti-government protestors.

That the protestors-turned-militiamen are what they are is more to do with Colonel Gaddafi's reaction to opposition than anything else. Indeed all we really know about the Libyan enemies of Colonel Gaddafi is that they are his enemies.

Yet despite this ignorance, politicians such as British Prime Minister David Cameron, have publicly suggested military action to aid the opposition, ranging from the imposition of a no-fly zone to arms drops to the rebels.

These are the perils of making foreign policy on the basis of what is on TV at any given time. The protests against the regimes of Zine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and now Colonel Gaddafi received almost completely uncritical support as good things from the western media despite no one really knowing if any good will come of it.

In Tunisia although elections have been scheduled to take place, there have already been reports of Islamists attacking prostitutes and causing trouble in the red light areas as a kind of pre-emptive taste of the regime they would like to see come to power.

Meanwhile in Egypt the so-called victory for people power has led to a good old fashioned military dictatorship, no promise of future elections, a secret police as busy as ever and the greeting by a vast crowd of one Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi. As Charles Moore at the Telegraph points out Mr Qaradawi holds the "most moderate opinion" that all women should be circumcised. One doesn't want to consider what his more forthright opinions might be.

Before policymakers and world leaders start making grandiose and career building decisions to start handing out weapons to those who oppose dodgy and sometimes excessively violent rulers, perhaps they should think about who those protestors are and what kind of regime are they going to be building if they are successful.

Even if the current group of rebels are successful in removing Colonel Gaddafi in Libya, who is to say they will be better than the bloodthirsty and (though one hates to admit it) sometimes entertaining Colonel? Is it not possible that Libya could be ruled by another Robert Mugabe type, or worse a Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

The place of Iran in this whole affair is of course a very interesting one and deserves much more attention than it is currently getting.

Peter Hitchens, the well travelled, but somewhat unpopular (among the British political elite anyway) columnist at the Mail on Sunday has put forward the interesting suggestion that Iran may in some way be behind the current unrest in the Middle East and North Africa and may be the ultimate beneficiary of it.

While he stresses that there is no physical evidence for this, not even enough for him to want to dignify the suggestion with the word "theory" he does point to some interesting facts which could be taken as circumstantial evidence of Iranian involvement.

First of all there is the nature of some of the protests. While it has not been widely shown there have been instances of protestors in Egypt and Libya defacing portraits of Mr Mubarak and Colonel Gaddafi with Stars of David. While this may not necessarily mean that the protests have been instigated by Mr Ahmadinejad, who is well known for his views on Jews, it should at least make us think twice about the kind of people we are thinking of arming and supporting with air strikes.

Such evidence, as Mr Hitchens points out, does not mean of course that the protestors are willingly carrying out the will of Tehran, but that they may have been unconsciously manipulated. The case of Iran itself shows this is possible when the elected government of Mohammad Mosaddeq was overthrown in 1953 by the CIA and MI6, although of course these groups did not advertise their presence at the time but were discovered to be involved much later. If the CIA are capable of doing it why not Iranian intelligence?

The second, and perhaps most interesting, piece of circumstantial evidence put forward by Mr Hitchens is that the unrest currently seizing the Arab world only seems to be effecting the pro-American, or at least non-Islamist parts of it.

Tunisia before the unrest was widely considered to be one of the better autocracies in the region, while Egypt under Mubarak was, although not a friend of Israel, at least happy to coexist with it, something Iran does not seem so keen on doing.

This brings us of course to Colonel Gaddafi, who with his rants against the Zionists and the "crazy Reagan" does not quite fit the picture of being an American backed despot. He has in recent years however started to come in from the cold and into the warm embrace of the western leaders like Tony Blair and Silvio Berlusconi. In any case Gaddafi has long been more interested in pan-Africanism than in global Jihad or the destruction of Israel. He may not be pro-American in the conventional sense of the word, but he is also little use to Tehran's ambitions.

By contrast which places have so far avoided serious unrest, despite being in some cases more repressive than those regimes that have had their revolutions? Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, like Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are oppressive regimes but they are all of the rabidly anti-Israel variety and to some degree or another, supported by Iran. Yet protests in these locations have been minimal or non-existent. Why? Why also did Iran send two warships up the Gulf at the height of the Egyptian protests?

Again this is not hard evidence that Iran has anything at all to do with the protests. However let us do a thought experiment. Let us imagine that Colonel Gaddafi is overthrown along with Ben Ali and Mubarak. No one knows what will come after these, but it could conceivably be three new Islamist, Israel hating and Iran-friendly governments. If such a scenario did come to pass would it not be rather beneficial for Iran and give it more allies who could menace not only Israel, but the Mediterranean and even southern Europe should they so desire?

It must be pointed out that there is no certainty and little evidence beyond the very circumstantial that Iran has anything at all to do with the protests. It could all just be fanciful thinking from Mr Hitchens.

However as Donald Rumsfeld might say there are known knowns, unknown knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. The nature of the rebels in Libya is certainly a known unknown and therefore Mr Cameron and other world leaders might like to think twice before helping them against Colonel Gaddafi. How would Mr Cameron feel if it turned out in 10 years time that he had unwittingly helped Tehran to install an Islamist government in Tripoli? Britain is already tainted by its association with Colonel Gaddafi, do we want to be tainted with another regime which could be just as bad if not worse?

It may be that Tunisia, Egypt and Libya will all become flourishing desert democracies. One hopes that they will but must look at the world as it is and not just as we'd like it to be. It could be when we cheer on protestors against tyranny, we may be only be cheering on the creation of a new tyranny. Extreme caution is needed.