What Iran Really Wants

Students wave Iranian national flags during a ceremony to mark the anniversary of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution in Tehran's Azadi (Freedom) Square February 10, 2009. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi (IRAN)

A primary rationale for much U.S. policy in the Middle East has been to curb Iranian “influence.” But that is too generic a concept to be a basis for sound policy.

May-June 2018

Iran’s one recent probable departure from its previous abandonment of international terrorism of the clandestine-assassination variety was also reactive. This was a set of (not very successful) attacks against Israeli soft targets in places like Thailand and Bulgaria in 2012. The timing, targets and even some of the methods used made it obvious that this was an attempt to retaliate for a series of assassinations of Iranian scientists.

Iranian policies have repeatedly been reactions to someone else’s unfriendly actions, including on other matters involving Israel. The Iran-supported creation of Hezbollah was in large part a response to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the ineffectiveness of Lebanon’s warring factions in resisting that invasion. Hezbollah was then strengthened, as it could use nationalist appeals in opposing the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon that continued for years afterward. When the United States convened a conference in Madrid in 1991 to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as other Middle Eastern issues, forty-three states, including fifteen from the Middle East, attended, but the United States excluded Iran from the invitation list. Tehran’s response to this snub was to adopt a more militant position than it had before toward Israel, to make its first serious effort to work with Palestinian rejectionist groups and to organize a counter-conference. This was a classic case of exclusion leading the excluded party to try to become a spoiler when it otherwise would not have been.

The reactive nature of Iran’s policies permeates its activities throughout the Middle East. Iran did not start the wars in Iraq, Syria or Yemen. It did not start the earlier war in Lebanon. It had nothing to do with the war that led to the fifty-year Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. It did not set off the uprisings that became known as the Arab Spring (although Iran responded with propaganda asserting that Iran had already had its revolution and set an inspiring example for others wanting to throw off repressive regimes). It did not promote a reaction to the Arab Spring in Egypt that established a new repressive regime with destabilizing effects in the form of increased extremist violence. These and other region-shaking developments would have given any regional state with the size and position of Iran, no matter the coloration of its regime, plenty to react to. Iran has indeed reacted—in order to try to shore up its existing interests, to ward off what it sees as threats and to attempt to expand its influence in the sorts of fluid situations in which influence often changes. Its responses are readily understandable in terms of the specific situations to which it has responded. The responses are not consistent with rhetoric about an unsettled Middle East being due only or even primarily to Iranian actions, much less with a purported Iranian scheme to take over the region.

THE NEXT question to ask is: how, if at all, is Iranian conduct different from (or worse than) the conduct of other states in the region? Careful examination of this question reveals the usual fulmination to be all the more poorly grounded. Consider, for example, the war in Yemen. Whatever aid Iran has given to the Houthis is minor in comparison with the far larger direct military intervention of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Trump administration has strived to publicize some missiles lobbed from Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen to Saudi Arabia, but such firings are a feeble response to the many tons of bombs that Saudi Arabia has dropped on Yemen. That aerial bombardment, coupled with the Saudi coalition’s blockade of ports, has turned Yemen into one of the world’s worst current humanitarian disasters. Neither does the character of the warring Yemeni factions warrant pinning a label of “good guys” on one side and “bad guys” on the other. The Houthis have been among the staunchest opponents of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which operates on the Saudi-supported side of the front lines and is the part of the Al Qaeda network that has come closest to inflicting significant post-9/11 damage on the United States. The lines of contention within Yemen are badly confused anyway, with the most recent addition to the confusion being conflict between Saudi-backed forces and Emirati-backed southern separatists.

One might still argue that the Houthis are rebels, and that the closest thing to an incumbent Yemeni government is the titular president Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who lives in exile in Riyadh. But apply that framework to Syria, where the Iranian role is far larger. There Iran, along with Russia, is supporting the incumbent government. The Assad regime, counting the father Hafez as well as the son Bashar, has been in power for forty-eight years. As the Russians like to point out, they and the Iranians are in Syria at the invitation of the Syrian government, while the United States and other foreign interveners are not. It is the United States, the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs who have been supporting rebels. The rebels have included an Al Qaeda affiliate and others who, whatever the Assad regime’s brutality, are no saints. It is those supporting the rebellion who are fostering instability, by trying to overthrow what had been the established order in Syria or to keep the incumbent government from governing the entire country.