When President Donald Trump announced the restoration of sanctions on Iran on Monday, hammering another nail in the coffin of the the 2015 nuclear agreement, he said he hoped to reach a more comprehensive deal addressing “the regime’s malign activities, including its ballistic missile program and its support for terrorism.”
Hard checks on these activities would be difficult to enforce; moreover, Iran would never agree to them, which is why they were not included in the deal struck by the Obama administration. While not ideal, these omissions were seen as an acceptable price to pay in order to put the brakes on Iran’s nuclear-weapons activity for years to come and open up some breathing room for a more permanent diplomatic solution. (Trump’s closest advisers, of course, have a different kind of permanent solution in mind for Iran.)
Arms proliferation, terrorism, and meddling in the affairs of other countries are all rightly described as “malign activities,” but at the same time, it is hard to see why Iran would agree to give up practices that its rivals and enemies routinely employ.
The Trump administration’s concern over Iran’s support for terrorist organizations throughout the Middle East is entirely legitimate. Iran projects regional power through a variety of non-state proxies: Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, Hamas in Gaza, various Shi’ite militias in Iraq, and Yemen’s Houthi rebels. All of these organizations have engaged in terrorist activity, while the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, an Iranian client, has committed countless atrocities over more than eight years of civil war there.
Yet the United States has little in the way of moral high ground from which to berate Iran for supporting terrorism and destabilizing fragile states in its backyard. Over the past few decades, the U.S. has often found itself doing the same thing in the course of projecting our own power and defending the hegemony of our problematic allies in the Middle East.
The latest example of this comes from Yemen, where an Associated Press investigation published Monday found that the U.S.-backed military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has on numerous occasions paid off members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to abandon their strongholds or even to join up with coalition forces.
While ostensibly at war with both AQAP and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia see the latter as the more pressing threat by far. Accordingly, the AP found, local militias supported by the coalition frequently recruit seasoned Al Qaeda fighters into their ranks to fight the Houthis, in deals allegedly brokered by Emirati agents and greased with Saudi money.
The U.S. does not directly fund the coalition, and the investigation found no evidence of American money making its way to AQAP militants. Nonetheless, the U.S. has supported the coalition with billions of dollars in weaponry, while providing intelligence and air support, chiefly in the form of drone strikes. Money is fungible, and every dollar the U.S. spends on weapons for the coalition is a dollar Saudi Arabia or the U.A.E. saves to spend on bribing or recruiting AQAP jihadists. When our drones hold off on bombing AQAP convoys while the coalition grants them safe passage into their mountain hideaways, we are still complicit in a dirty deal.
This doesn’t make us any worse than Iran, but it underscores the reality that in messy wars over failed states, nobody comes out with clean hands. Not one participant in the humanitarian catastrophe that is the Yemeni civil war has in mind the best interests of Yemen as a country or the Yemeni people. As the regional powers play their grand strategy game and attempt to muscle the country into their respective spheres of influence, everyone on the ground is just scrambling to survive and to expand their piece of a very small pie.
The attitude of local militia commanders was described to the AP thusly: “We will unite with the devil in the face of Houthis.” In this context, the notion that we could intervene in Yemen and not end up doing business with people who ought to be our enemies is almost ridiculous.
The same is true of Syria, where the U.S. has consistently had a hell of a time sorting out the “good” rebel factions we can conscientiously support from the jihadists we’d rather not. Despite our best efforts to only arm the good guys, some of the weapons we dumped into Syria inevitably fell into the hands of radical terror groups, including ISIS.
In Iraq, too, militias once supported by Iran have become partners of the U.S. in our efforts to help that country beat back ISIS and restore some vestige of stability. Alliances with paramilitary groups were also a key component of the U.S. counterinsurgency operations during the most violent years of our occupation of Iraq. Needless to say, that occupation was itself among the most destabilizing events to befall the Middle East in its modern history and has led to tens of thousands of deaths from terrorism.
It’s hard for the U.S. to credibly condemn Iran for supporting terrorism when every time we involve ourselves in a Middle Eastern conflict, we find ourselves contributing — directly or indirectly, wittingly or unwittingly — to instability, violence, and yes, terrorism. The means of our foreign policy in the Middle East are at odds with its supposed ends. Our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, our attempts to tip the scales of the conflicts in Libya and Syria, and our intervention in Yemen have only exacerbated the region’s ills.
Our close relationship with Saudi Arabia, which easily rivals Iran as an inspiration, sponsor, and financier of terrorism, is a big part of the problem. By supporting Saudi hegemony in the greater Middle East, we have abetted the proliferation of a radical Islamist ideology no less toxic than that of the Iranian mullahs. Moreover, by keeping Iran in a constant state of threat, we justify its leaders’ paranoia and motivate them to counter the Saudis with weapons proliferation and terrorist activities of their own.