Anti-Imperialism/Foreign Policy

No Clean Hands: The Interventions of Middle Eastern Powers, 2010-2020

By Matthew Petti and Trita Parsi, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Middle East instability is not due to a sole ‘malign actor’…

• Instability in the Middle East has often been blamed on a single expansionist U.S. opponent, whether that be Libya, Iraq, or Iran. However, a qualitative and quantitative view of the region’s conflicts over the past 10 years shows several states to be interventionist to roughly the same degree, contradicting the argument that regional instability is primarily caused by a single “malign actor.”

… nor are U.S. partners innocent — far from it

• Six states have shown themselves the most able to project armed power beyond their borders: Iran, Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. Iran is highly interventionist, but not an outlier. The other major powers in the region are often as interventionist as the Islamic Republic and at times even more so. Indeed, the UAE and Turkey have surpassed Iran in recent years.

The U.S. role is also highly problematic

• Washington is not sitting on the sidelines: It is an active player in these regional interventions. In fact, five of the six most interventionist powers in the Middle East are armed by the United States and also enjoy significant political support from Washington. Fully a third of U.S. arms exports from 2010 to 2020, measured in trend-indicator value, went to the major Middle Eastern powers considered in this study.

Hate the game, not the player

• The data suggest that the most important driving factor in interventionism is regional instability. That is, regional instability appears to drive interventions more often than interventions cause instability.

You can’t blame the Iran nuclear accord for this…

• There is no evidential support for the argument that the 2015 nuclear agreement between five world powers and Iran caused an increase in interventionism driven by Iranian aggression. Iranian intervention remained consistent from the high-water mark of the Arab Spring onward, while other powers’ increasing interventionism was often entirely unrelated to Iran. In fact, much of the regional escalation since 2011 has taken place in battlefields where Iran is not involved, but where Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar are jousting for power.

… although U.S. partners’ reaction to the Iran deal appears to have aggravated instability 

• One tempting explanation is that the U.S.Iranian rapprochement as the nuclear accord was negotiated and concluded created the perception that the United States was abandoning regional powers to Iran, incentivizing those powers to act more aggressively in pursuit of their perceived interests. Even so, much of the escalation occurred in conflicts that had little to do with Iran.

What to do? ‘First, do no harm’

• The United States should take no actions that would make matters worse and, in particular, avoid policies that cause any state to collapse, given that the collapse of state authority is a major driver of interventions and instability. In large part, this means simply resisting the temptation to begin new wars. The U.S. should also stay clear of policies that prolong ongoing civil wars or broad-based sanctions that intensify the process of state collapse, and in so doing elicit interventions.

Then, help resolve destabilizing quarrels among our friends 

• Given the extensive, destabilizing feuding among U.S. strategic partners, Washington should help manage and resolve rivalries among these partners. The United States has unfortunately been too passive in this regard and has failed to use its extensive diplomatic leverage to bring its friends to the negotiating table — this to the detriment of overall stability in the region.

Finally, focus on systemic change, not specific interventionist states

• The United States should support regional diplomacy with an eye toward the creation of a new, inclusive security architecture since, as noted, instability may drive interventions more than interventions are the sole cause of instability. This will likely be more effective than focusing solely on specific intervening states. A promising burst of regional diplomacy is now evident, and the Biden administration should signal its support for this trend by encouraging those engaging one another to institutionalize this embryonic regional dialogue.

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