Who Are You Calling a Rogue (State)?

New Paper Debunks Notion of Single “Malign Actor” in Middle East


CONTACT: Jessica Rosenblum, Director of Communications, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, 202.800.4662/ [email protected]

WASHINGTON, DCA new report, released today by the Quincy Institute, upends the premise of a central pillar of U.S. policy in the Middle East since the 1980s: the containment of “rogue” or “pariah” states. 

Contradicting the conventional view in Washington that instability in the Middle East is largely the result of a single, hostile actor — most recently Iran, but Libya, Iraq, and Syria before that — the report demonstrates that over the past ten years, a group of the most interventionist-inclined states in the region projected military power beyond their borders to roughly the same degree. 

“Iran is indisputably highly interventionist, but it’s not, in that respect, an outlier in the region,” says Quincy Institute Researcher Matthew Petti, an author of the new report “No Clean Hands: The Interventions of Middle Eastern Powers.” Petti and Trita Parsi, the report’s co-author and Quincy Institute’s Executive Vice President, present both a qualitative study of how states project hard power and a quantitative comparison of different levels of state interventionism over time.

Among the six states examined–Iran, Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE– five are armed and supported politically by the United States. Fully a third of U.S. weapons exports from 2010 to 2020, measured in trend indicator value, went to these five countries.

“Presuming the goal of U.S. policy is truly to reduce instability in the Middle East, decision making needs to be grounded in an objective understanding of what and who causes instability,” Parsi says. “Recognizing that instability has been exacerbated by American friends and foes alike gives U.S. policymakers insight and agency besides military means to help break the cycle of interventions.”

Focused on the critical period of 2010 to 2020– from just before the uprisings of the Arab Spring to the end of the Trump administration– the paper shows that military interventions in the region  have generally been a reaction to instability rather than its primary cause. 

While Iran was found to be the most consistently interventionist over the decade, all six powers were more deeply engaged in conflicts abroad by 2020 than ten years prior, and the UAE and Turkey had even surpassed Iran’s adventurism by the decade. Interventions came especially in response to various degrees of state collapse precipitated by the Arab Spring, and employed similar methods, including traditional troop deployments, local proxies, mercenaries, and drone warfare. 

Critically, the study finds no support for the notion that Iranian interventionism was exacerbated by the signing of the 2015 nuclear deal. In fact, Iranian intervention peaked before the signing of the deal. On the other hand, the hostility to the agreement by many U.S. partners such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who believed that with the deal the United States was abandoning the region to Iran, may have incentivized those powers to act more aggressively in pursuit of their perceived interests.

The report proposes significant policy changes, including: a policy of ‘do no harm’ that avoids fueling state collapse or launching new wars, using diplomatic leverage to bring U.S. allies to the negotiating table, and supporting regional diplomacy with eyes towards building a new regional inclusive security architecture.

“This paper offers critical insights for U.S. policy in the Middle East,” Petti says. “It shows that conflict is driven by regional instability, not primarily the actions of a singular malicious actor. This underscores the need to stop adding fuel to the fire through massive arms sales, and to build off blossoming regional diplomacy by pursuing an inclusive security architecture for the Middle East.”