Reflexively blaming Iran is both lazy and counterproductive

It has become too easy to blame Iran for all the problems of the Arab world. Those problems started long before the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and will continue long after if we don't ask why.

Reflexively blaming Iran is both lazy and counterproductive

Arab pundits, writers, and politicians have a deeply ingrained default position: blame Iran.

It almost always works and has the added benefit of being regularly justified. To spice things up, some occasionally blame the United States and Israel, too.

But the ease with which the blame is apportioned has led to a lazy, one-dimensional view of history, the emanation of evil, and the cause of our problems.

We now attribute all our misfortune to post-revolutionary Iran. Is that accurate? Is the Arab world entirely blameless?

Is it simply a victim of circumstance, despite its best endeavours to the contrary?

Those same pundits, writers, and politicians should ask themselves why Iran and others were able to inflict such harm on us and why were we so unable to defend ourselves.

There is usually a formula for victory. Is there a formula for misfortune?

Circumventing threats

Since the fall of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iran has diligently worked to circumvent two significant threats.

The first is the prospect of conflict with the US or Israel on its soil, and the second is the emergence of a neighbouring power that could launch another prolonged and destructive war against Iran, such as Hussein did in 1980.

The Iran-Iraq War lasted eight years, killed hundreds of thousands on both sides, cost up to $1tn, and achieved absolutely nothing.

Avoiding something similar is probably a good idea.

The ease with which the blame is apportioned has led to a lazy, one-dimensional view of history and the causes of problems.

To counter these twin threats of attacks by a superpower or long wars of attrition with a neighbour, Iran has cultivated proxy militias aligned with its interests.

It has also orchestrated coups, neutralised opponents of its objectives, and built an expansive network of loyalty that extends across the Middle East and beyond.

Read more: Iran's militant empire

To safeguard itself, Iran realised that it needed to become a regional power with strong, organised, well-armed proxy forces. So, over decades, Tehran invested billions in doing just that.

It has equipped and taught groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, the Houthis in Yemen, Kataib Hezbollah and the Badr Organisation in Iraq, and the Fatemiyoun Brigade in Syria.

These groups reciprocate Iran's 'charity' with loyalty, compliance, and dedication to its agenda, often at the expense of their own national interests.

Iraq's good to bad

It is easy to point to these groups and their benefactor and explain why other areas of the world have progressed more compared to the relatively stagnant Arab world.

The debate echoes that of the Arab Renaissance from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century. Then, too, Arab pundits pointed to Western advances and Arab lag. Clearly, then, the malignancy of Iran since 1979 cannot explain everything.

After the Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988, Iran found itself in ruins. Financially and militarily, it had taken a huge hit. It could not rely on friends because it had been diplomatically ostracised.

This was in sharp contrast to Iraq, which had received support from the US, the UK, the Soviet Union, France, and most Arab states, who dubbed it the 'Eastern Arab Gate' and praised it for defending against Iran (even though Iraq initiated war).

To counter these twin threats of attacks by a superpower or long wars of attrition with a neighbour, Iran has cultivated proxy militias.

That narrative needed swift revision when, just three years later, Hussein invaded Kuwait. Suddenly, his biggest international backers became his enemies.

That ill-judged foray—which had nothing to do with Iran—plunged Iraq into turmoil and, later, fragmentation. The effects of this are still being felt today.  

Iran, on the other hand, demonstrated resilience by overcoming global sanctions and other Western strategies aimed at its containment.

It is essential to delve into this analysis with a careful and discerning approach to avoid oversimplified conclusions.

In short, it slowly rebuilt itself while Hussein pressed 'self-destruct'.

Ignoring the rest

The Iran-blamers emphasise its regional ambitions and say it prioritises national interests over the stability and prosperity of the Middle East.

They point to Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Syria as examples of Iran's strategy to exploit sectarian and civil discord for its long-term security, often at the expense of regional harmony.

Yet this ignores the many scenarios across the Arab world in which Iran's influence is simply not a factor.

In Libya, for instance, Iran had zero foothold and had no hand in Muammar Gaddafi's downfall. Yet, despite this, the two power centres (in Tripoli and Benghazi) have continued their internal conflict at the expense of the country and its people.

The Lebanese Civil War erupted long before the Islamic Republic in Iran was established.

Similarly, Tehran's connections and influence do not extend to Sudan, where two warring generals have plunged the country into violent disarray for the past year. Again, Iran cannot be blamed for that.

Looking further back to a country in which Iran now has influence, the Lebanese Civil War erupted long before the establishment of the Islamic Republic in Iran.

In Syria, internal coups and riots involving the Ba'ath Party and the Muslim Brotherhood largely date from the 1960s, long before Ayatollah Khomeini's return from exile. Even the Hama massacre of 1982 was entirely independent of Iran.

Kurdish revolts in Iraq were also not instigated by Iran's Revolutionary Guard (although Iran's previous monarchy did interfere before abandoning them).

Meanwhile, Yemen has a history of internal disputes going back centuries, long before today's state of Yemen even existed. Again, that was not Iran's fault.

A look in the mirror

Attributing all our difficulties and setbacks to Iran oversimplifies the complex geopolitical landscape of the Arab world. Likewise, blaming external forces for our internal issues is too simplistic.

Of course, other nations might not have our best interests at heart. Of course, they may have one eye on our lands and resources.

But is it the secret hand of Iran collaborating with Israel to plunder Palestinian land or kill the people of Gaza?

Of course not. Israel's occupation dates back to 1967. Colonial powers have encroached on Arab land for millennia.

Is Iran secretly collaborating with Israel to plunder Palestinian land or kill the people of Gaza? Of course not. Israel's occupation dates back to 1967.

When it comes to Iran's meddling in the Arab world, it is right to shine a spotlight on its tactics.

But whether it is Iran, Israel, the US, or other non-Arab aggressors, we should ask why they succeed and why the Arab world repeatedly fails to defend itself — just as we once asked why the non-Arab world seemed to be dominating us.

If we fail to self-reflect, we will never learn from our mistakes.

The deficiencies within our societal and governance structures will continue, the calibre of our political, financial, and military leaders will remain static, and the root causes of our failures will continue to be misunderstood.

Meanwhile, everyone will carry on blaming Iran. Yes, sometimes it does come down to Iran. But sometimes it doesn't.

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