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Ever since the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, Americans have held an understandably negative view of the Iranian regime, a public perception that makes it easy for Trump, Bolton, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to describe it as the root of virtually all of the Middle East’s ills. But, in truth, Iran today is no more aggressive and malign than its key regional competitor, and America’s ally, Saudi Arabia.
Compare the two governments’ behavior across a host of domains. First, military spending. In 2017, according to the International Crisis Group, Riyadh spent roughly four times as much on defense as did Tehran. That’s nothing new. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Iran hasn’t spent more than 3.3 percent of its GDP on defense in any year since 1989. During that period, the Saudis have spent at least 7 percent every single year. Saudi weaponry is also far better. According to a 2015 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Riyadh and its Gulf allies “have acquired and are acquiring some of the most advanced and effective weapons in the world,” while “Iran has essentially been forced to live in the past, often relying on systems originally delivered at the time of the Shah, or lower grade imports, many of which reflect the technologies of the 1960s to 1980s.” Factor in Israel—the Middle East’s preeminent military power—as another counterweight to Iran, and the claim that Tehran threatens to dominate the Middle East becomes even more absurd.
A second supposed example of Iran’s uniquely aggressive behavior is its intervention in Syria. But here, again, Tehran’s behavior is no more aggressive than Riyadh’s.
The key to understanding Iran’s involvement in Syria is the Iraq-Iran War. In 1980, Saddam invaded Iran in what became one of the longest and bloodiest conflicts of the late 20th century. Roughly 1 million Iranians died. And although Saddam was clearly the aggressor, and even after he used chemical weapons, almost every major Arab country—plus the United States—backed him.
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Only one Arab government took Iran’s side: Syria. It has remained Iran’s lone consistent regional ally ever since. It’s not surprising, therefore, that when protests broke out against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government in 2011, Iran feared his replacement by either pro-American forces committed to regime change in Tehran or Sunni Islamists virulently hostile to Iran’s brand of Shia Islam. Like Turkey, Iran also feared if Syria’s Kurds seceded, that might embolden Kurdish separatists in their country.
None of this justifies Iran’s complicity in Assad’s murderous repression. But in Syria, Iran isn’t promoting revolution. It’s defending a brutal status quo, just as Riyadh did when it sent troops to repress protests by Bahrain’s Shia majority in 2011, or when it backed Egyptian General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s bloody crackdown on supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood following his 2014 coup. In Syria, it’s not the Iranians who have been promoting regime change. It’s Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, which have backed a host of anti-Assad rebel groups, including some linked to Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s local affiliate.