There Is No Other But Iran: Misdiagnosing the Causes of Regional Instability

A Version of this piece appeared in The New Arab on February 13, 2019

The acclaimed Polish journalist and foreign correspondent Ryszard Kapuściński (d. 2007), witness to numerous coups, wars, and revolutions, once remarked that “every one of us living on this planet is an Other in the view of Others — I am in their view, and they are in mine.” In other words: no one of us is the center of the universe no matter how hard we may wish it. So too is it the case with international relations, where many fall into bad habits of asserting a single, facile explanation for all things.

When the “Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East” kicks off in Warsaw, Poland, there is a risk of this myopia in treating Iran as the only “Other” to be scrutinized, as if other actors — the US included — do not have anything to answer for.

The conference was initially unveiled as one to confront Iran, but as this designation unsettled some European countries, the US backtracked to represent it as a brainstorming session about efforts to address four general areas, such as “regional crises and their effects on civilians in the Middle East.”

Will the conference unfold as a “desperate anti-Iran circus” and promote “a simplified unilateral approach to the region that is clearly linked to just Iran,” as representatives of Iran and Russia argue, or will it be merely a “forum for countries concerned about instability in the region … and offer ideas on a better way forward,” as Polish and American organizers contend?

The acting US Ambassador to the United Nations sought to allay fears by telling the Security Council that the conference will not be “a venue to demonize or attack Iran”. He then presented a laundry-list of Iran’s “destabilizing activities” the conference would seek to acknowledge and address, including Iran’s missile program, arming of proxy groups, the activity of Hezbollah, and support of the Syria regime.

To the extent the US and its regional allies are successful in depicting Iran as the sole “Other” destabilizing the Middle East, all Others are absolved from responsibility.

Such a formulation represents a worldview that Iran is the main and sole cause of destabilization in the Middle East, a pervasive logic that governs the US understanding of the region, implicitly rejecting all other frames of reference. It is a logic proffered in recent speeches by President Trump at the UN, Secretary of State Pompeo in Cairo, and the administration’s recent request for military options to strike Iran, and the proposal to leave US troops in Iraq to check Iranian ambitions.

But to the extent the US and its regional allies are successful in depicting Iran as the sole “Other” destabilizing the Middle East, all Others are absolved from responsibility. If the standards to which Iran is held were applied to others, could an honest assessment say they have a comprehensive plan to address ongoing war and violence in the Middle East and the protection of civilians impacted by regional crises?

Will the conference, for example, address the role of the Saudi-led coalition’s responsibility for famine, civilian death, and the deepening humanitarian crisis in Yemen? Or will it simplistically focus on Iranian support of Houthi rebels and ignore how the actions of the coalition have perversely created the conditions that increase causes of terrorism? Will it raise the matter of how the United Arab Emirates is implicated in torture in prison networks across South Yemen and the jailing of activists, dissidents, and journalists in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and elsewhere, or only the manner in which Iran imprisons regime critics or the Houthis’ use of arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances? Will the conference address how arm transfers between states, such as from the US to its Arab allies, has contributed to potential war crimes or ended up in the hands of Al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen or only the proliferation of arms to Iranian proxies? Will participants examine the preferred region-wide practice of arming and supporting proxies in Syria by the US, Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, or simply seek to condemn Iran for doing the same?

Iran should certainly be held accountable for its role in causing regional instability, including the support of militias, arming proxies, and, above all else, its unconditional support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which is responsible for thousands of civilian deaths. But to portray the region’s instability solely as the product of Iranian activities ignores regional dynamics and actions that exceed the scope, ability, and reach of a single actor.

Coming to grips with how unlawful imprisonments, arms transfers, and the support of proxies accelerate “regional crises and their effects on civilians in the Middle East” is essential. Only by shifting the focus from identifying (and punishing) bad actors to confronting bad actions will the US and the other conference participants inaugurate a more principled and consistent approach to address the region’s many travails. Accomplishing that will require valuing regional stability over state interests, and human security on par with state security. It will also require the confidence to be assessed oneself as some others’ “Other.”

Kevin L. Schwartz is Research Fellow at the Oriental Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague. He was previously a research fellow at the Library of Congress and Distinguished Visiting Professor (Middle East Chair) at the US Naval Academy. His website is www.kevinschwartz.org.