We Must Shift the Focus of the Middle East’s Problems away from the U.S.-Iran Standoff

A common conversation often takes place in the Middle East when social movements or major disruptive political developments are discussed: a supporter of the status-quo complains that the country is doomed (khirbet el-balad), to which an opposition supporter responds that it was already damaged (ma heyye aslan kharbane).

Those looking to quell United States-Iran tensions could learn a lot from the familiar anecdote. Amid the clamor surrounding Iranian General Qassem Soleimani’s killing, the issues underpinning instability in the region, and ways to address them, have barely been mentioned.

With warnings that the region could be on the brink of war, footage emerged of Iraqis and Syrians celebrating the death of the man they saw as the driving figure behind Iran’s destructive role in their countries. In Iraq, protestors chanted slogans such as “we want a homeland” and “no U.S. and no Iran,” conveying their rejection of getting Iraq caught up in a U.S.-Iran confrontation. Many in the region see the struggle for influence among the U.S., Iran, and indeed, wider competing geopolitical interests as having robbed aspirations for change in their countries, and masking the political and economic issues affecting them.

When Syrians took to the streets in 2011 calling for freedom, dignity, and justice, Iran supported the brutal oppression of the uprising, driving it into armed conflict. The later interventions of Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the U.S., Israel, and Russia in trying to shape the outcome of the conflict ensured the Syrian people were left out of the equation, leaving the country shattered with deep societal ruptures.

More recently in Iraq, Iranian-backed militias cracked down on anti-establishment protestors, resulting in the deaths of over 500 people. At least 26 activists have been assassinated since October last year. In Lebanon, the sectarian ruling elite have been maneuvering around protestor demands to form a government to manage the economic crisis. Both Iran and the U.S., along with the political blocs associated with them, have been shifting the narrative in both countries to fighting a foreign conspiracy and pushing back Iranian influence respectively.

In Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates’ devastating war against the Houthis’ 2014 coup, along with Iran’s believed enhancement of the Houthis’ military and security capabilities, has stripped the country of a political transition that had unprecedented opportunities for the participation of women and young people. 

The U.S.’s recent Middle East peace plan is a huge injustice to Palestinian rights and gives further pretext for Iran’s regional mobilization under “anti-imperialist” and “resistance” discourses to facilitate its expansionist security policy. In the eyes of the region’s people, both U.S. and Iranian meddling has brought immense suffering and made progress impossible.

Advancing regional stability requires addressing public concerns

Despite the destabilizing environment, movements pushing for change persist and have been gathering momentum in the Middle East. Last October, uprisings erupted in Iraq and Lebanon against corruption and economic mismanagement by the ruling classes — and flawed systems of sectarian power-sharing. Attempts to normalize the post-war status quo in Syria have been challenged by recent demonstrations in the south of the country, bemoaning harsh living conditions and security measures. 

Yet Iran and its political allies have used Soleimani’s assassination to invoke “anti-imperialism” and bolster their legitimacy — again using the narrative of geopolitical struggle as a pretext for squashing and co-opting movements for social and political change.

The U.S.-Iran standoff is deeply connected to the region’s wider conflicts, governance dysfunctionalities, and the social movements that are trying to push for solutions to them. This means that mediation initiatives to facilitate de-escalation between the U.S. and Iran, such as those taken up by the EU, Oman, Qatar, and Japan, need to take a multi-layered approach.

These initiatives will likely prioritize reviving a nuclear agreement among Iran, the U.S. and other international powers, and addressing regional tensions. But seeking stability must start with putting the security and needs of people across the region first. To sustain de-escalation, the initiatives need to be connected to progress in allowing people to pursue their aspirations for just, democratic governance and fairer economies.

Security in the Middle East will be fragile and unsustainable if the roots of instability — repressive political systems, corruption, inequalities, injustice and conflict profiteering — are not addressed. In Syria and Yemen, policymakers and mediators must make much greater effort to ensure that peace processes prioritize people’s grievances and offer them channels for shaping their countries’ futures. Viable political settlements cannot be shaped only in the interests of external powers.

In Iraq and Lebanon, the U.N., foreign countries, and international monetary institutions should pressure the ruling classes to respond more constructively to demands for fairer societies, accountability, and a departure from exclusively sectarian political systems, and avoid backing repression and sectarianism.

They must likewise protect and invest in peacebuilding efforts by making funding available to growing civil society movements. Refocusing on improving people’s lives will not only reduce U.S.-Iran tensions, but will lay the groundwork in the region for steps on the long road toward just and sustained peace.