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Kevin Schwartz

Iran and the destabilisation of the Middle East

Iran may sow chaos in the region, but it's not the only one [AFP]

Date of publication: 24 September, 2018

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As the UN General Assembly begins, Kevin L. Schwartz questions whether Iran is the region's sole source of unrest, conflict, and political instability.
When President Trump speaks in front of the UN General Assembly today, don't be surprised if it seems like the leader of the United States describes a nation other than his own as being the world's most powerful.

As Trump is likely to tell it, much like he and others in the administration have made clear before, Iran is the superpower and source of unrest, conflict, and political instability in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon as well as cause for concern elsewhere.

By way of its destabilising activities, the country is either en route to creating a Shia Crescent or revanched Iranian empire across the Middle East. It is the deft puppet-master capable of outsmarting the coalition of nations lined up against it and has no peer in navigating every multi-dimensional conflict and political landscape with precision and savvy.

If only the regime in Iran were to fall, then surely the conflict in Syria would end, a unified Yemen would emerge, political stability would return to Iraq and Afghanistan, and Lebanese politics could function smoothly with a significantly weakened Hizballah.


"Cut off the head of the snake," as the late Saudi King Abdullah once declared in reference to Iran's role in destabilising the region, is basically the Trump administration's Middle East policy in a nutshell. Remove the regime in Tehran and stability will follow.

But any logic that traces any and all problems in the Middle East to Iran's destabilising activities both ignores the country's strategic interests and masks the responsibility of other nations in the region's many conflicts.

Constantly referencing Iran's actions as destabilising is merely a convenient motif for portraying any action that runs counter to a desired regional security order to which it doesn't subscribe. Essentially "destabilisation" has come to describe Iran's refusal to abide by the unfavourable terms of a US-led security order in the Middle East.
In some places Iran seeks the strengthening of state and governmental power and elsewhere it seeks to undermine it


Little wonder Iran has grown closer to Russia, a country no more satisfied with the US strategic board in the Middle East and Washington's programme to implement its version of "stability". Like the question of "who is a terrorist" (or doing the terrorising), the question of who is creating instability (or doing the destabilising) is no less complicated and open to interpretation.

Concluding simply that Iran's activities are collectively destabilising, other than through the narrow lens of US preferences, proves difficult: Iran supports the maintenance of the Assad regime in Syria, a rebel force vying for state power in Yemen, The Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces militia and political parties pursuing power in Iraq, and an armed political party in Lebanon that doubles as an active participant in governmental politics and international terrorist organisation trafficking in arms and drugs.

In other words, in some places Iran seeks the strengthening of state and governmental power and elsewhere it seeks to undermine it. In all places, not unlike most states, it seeks to maintain influence.


Without any consistent behavioural practice either for or against maintaining state power, the foundation of stability in the international order, determining Iran's behaviour as consistently destabilising is highly problematic.

The same subjective logic underwriting stability and destabilisation is equally present when applied to the actions of a host of other countries in the Middle East. The United States has eradicated the state in Iraq and Afghanistan, abetted its initial decline in Libya, and armed rebels to fight the state in Syria.

Approaching the issue of stability by aligning oneself with the desires of "the people" is no less satisfying. Saudi Arabia, for example, supports the stability of non-democratic regimes in Egypt and Bahrain in the face of popular uprisings, while at once supporting the people against the brutal Assad regime in Syria, to say nothing of "the people" they have repeatedly and indiscriminately bombed in Yemen since 2015.
One place to start would be recognising that conflict in the region is being perpetuated by the norm of international actors arming and financing proxies, militias, and rebel groups


Rather than continually identifying Iran (or any single country) as the powerful bogeyman at the root of all Middle East conflict, as Trump's UN speech and later chairing of a Security Council meeting is likely to point out, the region's stability would be better served by recognising not what makes Iranian behaviour unique, but what makes it similar to other international actors operating in the region.

Surely one place to start would be recognising that conflict in the region is being perpetuated by the norm of international actors arming and financing proxies, militias, and rebel groups. While notions of stability, like terrorism, may be in the eye of the beholder, the funneling of arms and money to local groups in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan is the modus operandi that binds together the behaviour of Iran, US, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Israel, and others across the region.

The desire to influence politics and outcomes by pouring arms and treasure into the region's war zones is an epidemic far exceeding Iranian behaviour. To declare otherwise and believe that countering Iran at every turn is the region's quick-fix, at a venue dedicated to the shared responsibility and commitment to global stability no less, will simply ring hollow.


Kevin L. Schwartz is a Research Fellow at the Oriental Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague. He holds a PhD in Near Eastern Studies from the University of California, Berkeley.


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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