On the final day of 2019, Iraqi protesters breached the most formidable U.S. embassy in the Middle East, and several days later the United States assassinated leading Iranian Quds force commander Qassem Suleimani in a drone strike. Within a matter of days, a decade of misguided U.S. policies in the region had given a violent birth to the next one.
Some commentators and officials have dismissed the protesters as mere pawns of a pro-Iranian militia, who attacked the embassy in Baghdad in retaliation for an earlier airstrike that killed at least 25 people. The same gang seeks to downplay the unprecedented and dangerous assassination of Suleimani as no more than the necessary elimination of a U.S.-designated terrorist (itself an unusual label). But to characterize these events within the construct of defense against rabid, anti-American militias and terrorism is as misleading as it is imprecise: There are states, sub-state actors, officials, and ordinary people who oppose the United States’ presence, policies, and actions in the region on legitimate grounds and they cannot be dismissed as “spoilers” or “terrorists” simply because they are affiliated with Iran.
For too long the U.S. has been guided by a near mythological understanding of the Middle East, where evil is caricatured by Iran and “terrorists,” while its own actions remain defined by morality and just action. It is a fantabulist vision more befitting the “Marvel Universe” than the real world.
A sober assessment of the nature and costs of U.S. engagement in the Middle East would conclude that the country is not a net force for good (or stability) in the region, simply because it wishes to be so. If one tallied up the human cost — resulting from direct military engagements in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria; arms transfers and operational support to state and non-state actors operating in Syria, Yemen, and the occupied territories; drone strikes and special operations; imprisonment by authoritarian regimes that the United States supports; and the economic deprivations of sanctions and war — one would be hard pressed to find any actor more responsible for the destruction and instability that has plagued the Middle East for the past two decades than the United States.
To think otherwise requires a naive belief in American exceptionalism — that somehow U.S. policies and actions do not abide by the same logics of other actors. It is a belief that because the United States is not motivated by conquest, it is somehow absolved of accountability for the consequences of its actions.
Quite simply, the United States ought to be reliably, and uncontroversially, regarded as one of the most destructive actors in the Middle East over the past two decades, an argument that can only be rebutted with weak counterfactuals about prevented terrorist acts that are easily outweighed by increased terrorist recruiting and military reprisals in response to U.S. actions.
Understanding such a basic conclusion undermines the false narrative that all destabilizing activities in the region must be invariably traceable back to Iran and warrant further U.S. military actions in the region, thereby risking wider conflict and further destabilization.
This is not to give Iranian actions in the region a free pass, but to merely recognize that they have policies, a government and public opinion as well and are deploying tactics and practices to achieve their own strategic outcomes with the capacity they have in the environment in which they operate. In fact, Iran — like the United States — relies on a mix of direct military engagements, arms transfers, technical assistance, and military advice to exert regional influence and prop-up regional clients, who may or may not fulfill their bidding. These reciprocal and escalating actions by both countries threaten the already precarious existence of ordinary citizens searching for greater government accountability, economic certainty, and a more dignified life.
To merely analyze such actions through the prism by which the United States is an indisputably good actor and Iran is an indisputably bad one is perhaps the most degrading and dishonest way to understand the ongoing plight of the region’s general population.
Such narrow-minded self-regard is also certain to prevent any clear thinking that could lead to a welcome resolution of conflict and tensions or instigate a reimagining among American policymakers of a U.S. role in the Middle East that does not revolve around military engagements and a flooding of the region with lethal armaments.
Iran understands this dynamic perfectly well. One of the most consistent and dependable components of Iran’s post-Revolution foreign policy has been to expose U.S. hypocrisy by pointing out that it is undertaking the very same actions for which the United States receives a free pass. Iran has continually sought to hold up a mirror to the United States and demonstrate that its regional activities are no different — whether it comes to sponsoring sub-state actors or transferring arms to clients — and that the United States unfairly holds Iran to a different standard of compliance for international treaties, like the Non-Proliferation Treaty, than other countries.
The illegal and unwise assassination of Suleimani must thus be regarded as the height of U.S. hypocrisy in the region and with an over-sized sense of irony.
Witness arguments that the strike was justified to counteract Iranian influence in Iraq — a country bordering Iran and intertwined with its neighbor historically, culturally, and religiously on multiple levels — while the United States continues to try to direct Iraqi government formation, policies, and business deals from a fortress with occupying troops. Is it really any wonder that the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution to expel U.S. troops from the country? Or, consider the illogic of citing Suleimani’s crimes in gory detail while ignoring all the destruction caused by U.S. actions in Iraq and elsewhere.
Until the U.S. comes to understand why its activities in the Middle East are destructive and the devastating impacts they have, it will continue to see its embassies breached and interests threatened, ever compelled to respond, feeding an ongoing cycle from which there is no escape.
Kevin L. Schwartz is a Research Fellow at the Oriental Institute at 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.