In the same vein consider Bahrain, which is an interesting case given historical Iranian claims to Bahrain and past Iranian activity there. Despite that background and despite Bahraini government accusations, there is an absence of reliable evidence of anything in recent years that could accurately be described as Iranian subversion in Bahrain. Instead it is again the Saudis who have used forceful methods to exert their influence on a neighbor, and in this case to prop up an unpopular Sunni regime in a Shia majority country. The principal Saudi military intervention in Bahrain came a few years ago, but it was an early shot in a campaign that has taken fuller shape under King Salman to use any available means, including military force, to expand Saudi influence in the region. If there is a Persian Gulf power that has been using damaging methods to try to become a regional hegemon, it is Saudi Arabia, not Iran.
The Saudis could claim to be acting on behalf of a status quo in Bahrain and Yemen, but then what about Syria, where it is Iran that is backing the existing regime? And as perhaps the most germane question, how can any one of the outside players that have mucked into that incredibly complicated civil war be singled out as a destabilizing regional marauder while the others (some of whom, such as the United States and Israel, have conducted their own airstrikes in the country) be given the benefit of more benign labeling? Iran did not start the Syrian war. And each of the most significant sides fighting that war are dominated by what we normally would consider certifiable bad guys: the Assad regime, ISIS, and an Islamist coalition led by the local Al-Qaeda branch. It is hard to see a clear and convincing basis for parceling out benign and malign labeling here when it comes to the outside players.
Then of course there is the rest of the Levantine part of the region, including Palestine; the aid relationships that Iran has had with the H groups—Hezbollah and Hamas—are continually invoked in any litany of Iranian regional activity. Lebanese Hezbollah certainly is still an important ally of Iran, although it has long since become strong enough to outgrow any Iranian hand-holding. We should never forget that prior to 9/11 Hezbollah was the group that had more U.S. blood on its hands through terrorism than any other group. We also should understand that Hezbollah has become a major player in Lebanese politics in a way in which many in the region, including its immediate political opponents, accept it as a legitimate political actor. Right now as a military actor it is deeply involved in the effort to support the Syrian regime, and it is not looking to stir up any new wars or instability anywhere else.
Hamas has never been anything remotely resembling a proxy of Iran, although it has accepted, somewhat reluctantly, Iranian aid in the absence of other help. To Iran, Hamas represents Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation of (or blockading and subjugation of) Palestinian territory, without being an accessory to that occupation, which is how the Palestinian Authority is widely seen. Hamas is the winner of the last free Palestinian election, and it has repeatedly made clear that its ambition is to hold political power among Palestinians and that it is willing to maintain a long-term truce with Israel. Right now Hamas is trying, unfortunately with only partial success, to keep small groups from overturning the current cease-fire with rocket firings into Israel. Again, none of this is a conflict that Iran has instigated or that Iran is stirring up or escalating. Iran is not the cause of the instability that already reigns. And the broader opposition to continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory is opposition that Iran shares with many others, including the whole Arab world.
As long as we are looking at this part of the region, it is impossible to escape notice that Iran does not hold a candle to Israel when it comes to forcefully throwing weight around in the neighborhood in damaging and destabilizing ways, even without considering the occupation of the West Bank. This has included multiple armed invasions of neighboring territory as well as other actions, such as the attack on Iraq years ago that stimulated Iraq to speed up its program to develop nuclear weapons.
And before we leave the Middle East as a whole, it also is impossible to escape notice that the single most destabilizing action in the region over the past couple of decades was the U.S. launch of a war of aggression in Iraq in 2003. Iran certainly has done nothing like that.
The ritualistically repeated notion that Iran is wreaking instability all over the region is a badly mistaken myth. There are important respects in which Iranian policies and actions do offend U.S. interests, but protection of those interests is not helped by perpetuating myths.
Perpetuation of this particular myth has several deleterious effects. The most immediate and obvious one is to corrupt debate over the nuclear deal. Another is to foster broader misunderstanding about Iranian behavior and intentions that threatens to corrupt debate over other issues as well.
Yet another consequence involves a failure to understand fully that every state competes for influence. Such efforts to compete are called foreign policy. It would be in our own interests for other states to wage that competition through peaceful and legitimate means. By misrepresenting who is doing what, and through what means, in the Middle East today, the myth about Iranian behavior maintains a constituency for isolating and ostracizing Iran—which makes it less, not more, likely that Iran, so ostracized, will use peaceful and legitimate means to pursue its interests in the future.
Image: Creative Commons 3.0.