Iran’s announcement that it had test-fired two missiles at the end of 10-day naval exercises in the Persian Gulf was a sharp reminder of regional instability, whether in countries emerging from decades of dictatorship or still subject to arbitrary rule.

During the exercises, the government said it would close the Strait of Hormuz, the entrance to the Gulf, were America and the EU to impose embargoes on its oil exports because of its uranium enrichment program. The Iranian threat has since been withdrawn, but the confusing signals coming from Tehran have done nothing to calm nerves in a region racked by violence.

In neighboring Syria, Iran’s only ally, President Bashar al-Assad, has cocked a snook at Arab League monitors by continuing to fire on unarmed civilians. In that his regime provides a conduit for arming Hezbollah in Lebanon, its fall would be a setback for the Iranians.

But there are promising new openings in another neighbor, Iraq, where the Shia prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, seems set on destroying the tripartite Shia/Sunni/Kurdish consensus on which the territorial integrity of the state depends.

Meanwhile, the fulcrum of the Middle East, Egypt, is in the throes of transition between a dictatorship under Hosni Mubarak and representative government, an exercise that has so far favored Islamist parties and is due to end with presidential elections in June.

Political uncertainty has deterred both investors and tourists, a devastating blow to an already weak economy. Still, in contrast to Iran, Syria and Iraq, Egypt is at least moving in the right direction.

Success during the coming year in laying the foundations for a stable democracy will be of profound benefit to the region as a whole.

— The Telegraph, London, Jan. 3