Trump's fake "stability" premise
Over a year ago U.S. President Donald Trump announced his nation's withdrawal from the international agreement with Iran and imposed a policy of "maximum pressure" on the Islamic Republic. Since then, not only has he driven the Iranian economy into crisis, but also pushed the region to the brink of war. As justification for his approach he cites Iran's "aggressive", "expansive" and "destabilising" foreign policy. One of his declared goals is to persuade Iran to behave like a "normal nation".
All of which begs the question as to what can really be regarded as "normal" in this conflict-ridden region, and whether "stability" really is the correct yardstick by which to evaluate policy. The question is all the more important because Trump isn't the only one accusing Iran of "destabilising" the region. Despite all their differences with Trump, the Europeans also share this view. Iran is generally regarded in the West as an ideological, dangerous and unpredictable actor.
Iran does indeed aggressively pursue its interests in the region and supports various militias and parties to expand its influence in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. But it is by no means alone in this approach. In these endeavours, it is much more like Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Qatar and Turkey, all of which are themselves directly or indirectly involved in the conflicts of the region to defend their interests and extend their influence.
Geostrategic influence of many actors
For example in the Syrian civil war, Riyadh, Doha and Ankara have over the years financed, equipped and trained rebel groups, among them radical Islamists. It would be justifiable to doubt whether their main motivation here was the realisation of democracy, civil rights and a just order in Syria. Moreover, in the fight against the Syrian Kurds, Turkey has captured large areas of northern Syria since 2016 and maintains its occupation of these territories to this day.
After the Houthi rebels seized power in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Egypt also intervened in Yemen's domestic power struggle in 2015, to prevent the nation coming under Iran's sphere of influence. Through this intervention, they have turned an internal conflict into an international proxy war. The consequences are thousands of dead civilians, an infrastructure in tatters and an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.
Through the interference of the Emirates, Egypt and Turkey since the toppling of Gaddafi in 2011, the civil war in Libya has also become an international battle for influence. In Lebanon too, not only have Iran, Syria and Israel been meddling in the country's politics for decades, but also Riyadh, whose Crown Prince arrested the Lebanese Prime Minister and forced him to step down in 2017 because he was co-operating with the pro-Iranian Hezbollah group.
So Iran is by no means the only country to be interfering in the affairs of foreign nations. In fact, it is fair to say that almost all of the region's nations use money, weapons and their own troops to try and exert an influence their neighbours' conflicts. Riyadh in particular is, in the pursuit of its interests, hardly less aggressive and ruthless than Iran. If it didn't sound cynical, it would be fair to say that Tehran's conduct in the Middle East is utterly "normal".
Not a force for peace and stability
There is no doubt that Iran is not a force for peace and stability. In Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, it supports the Shia opposition to destabilise the monarchies there. With Hamas and Hezbollah, it sponsors two movements with the declared goal of wiping the state of Israel off the map. In Syria and Iraq, its support of Shia parties has played a significant role in stoking inter-confessional conflicts.
But the civil war in Syria shows just how ambivalent this "stability" criterion is. After all, with its support of Bashar al-Assad against the rebels, Tehran is advocating retention of the status quo. Rightly however, few in the West would want to equate stability with legitimacy in this case. Just as in most countries in the region, here the status quo means repression and tyranny.
The criterion of "stability" is therefore not the correct yardstick by which to evaluate policy. Moreover, the charge of "destabilisation" also goes astray because for years Iran has supported and "stabilised" governments in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq, Iranian Revolutionary Guards can be largely credited for stopping the Jihadist advance on Baghdad and Erbil and eventually crushing their "Caliphate".
Ultimately, the "destabilisation" charge also rings hollow because with its toppling of Saddam Hussein and policy failures in the ensuing years, the United States became the actor that has destabilised the region more than any other. The jihadist movement would never have gained such traction without the catastrophic U.S. intervention of 2003. And without the ousting of Saddam Hussein, Iran would never have been able to gain such influence in Baghdad.
Considered in this context, the U.S. accusation that Iran is the root of all evil in the Middle East sounds simply absurd. The idea that the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic is primarily driven by ideology and aimed at expansion, is also wrong. The "exporting the Revolution" paradigm has been more rhetorical than a true driver of any political decision-making since the 1980s and for the most part, national interests are more important to Tehran than ideology.
Essentially, Iran is not conducting itself any differently to its neighbours – namely as a nation state seeking to assert itself in a frequently turbulent environment and trying to safeguard its interests and expand its influence. It sometimes does this using violent means, sometimes with diplomacy and often pragmatically. Recognition of this in Washington and other western capitals would help produce a more realistic and rational appraisal of Iran.
Ulrich von Schwerin
© Qantara.de 2019
Translated from the German by Nina Coon