Who’s Behind Instability in the Middle East?


The Middle East has suffered immensely from civil wars, especially in the decade following the Arab Spring. Hundreds of thousands have died, millions have fled from their homes, and untold numbers have been subjected to poverty and repression in places from Libya to Iraq and Syria to Yemen.

American policymakers have attempted to blame the chaos on “malign activities” by U.S. rivals, but a new paper by Matthew Petti and Trita Parsi, “No Clean Hands: The Interventions of Middle Eastern Powers, 2010-2020,” suggests that the picture is more complicated. U.S. partners and allies are behind many of the region’s proxy interventions and have gotten increasingly aggressive in recent years. And they have fought each other as much as they have fought against U.S. rivals.

How will — or should — this reality impact U.S. policy, since five out of the six most interventionist states in the region are armed and politically supported by the United States? And what leverage does Washington have to roll back the malign activities of regional powers — friends and enemies alike?


Matthew Petti

Matthew Petti is a reporter at Responsible Statecraft and research assistant at the Quincy Institute. He is also a 2022-2023 Fulbright fellow. He was previously a national security reporter at The National Interest and a contributor at The Armenian Weekly, Reason and America Magazine. The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations. Follow him on Twitter @Matthew_Petti.

Monica Duffy Toft

Monica Duffy Toft is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Quincy Institute and Professor of International Politics and founding Director of the Center for Strategic Studies at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Prior to Tufts, Toft was Professor of Government and Public Policy at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government and Assistant and Associate Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Toft is a Global Scholar of the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, a faculty associate of Oxford’s Blavatnik School, a fellow of Oxford’s Brasenose College, a research advisor to the Resolve Network, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Political Instability Task Force.

Shadi Hamid

Dr. Shadi Hamid is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and co-founder and editor of Wisdom of Crowds. He is the author of Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World, which was shortlisted for the 2017 Lionel Gelber Prize for best book on foreign affairs, and co-editor of Rethinking Political Islam. His first book Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East was named a Foreign Affairs Best Book of 2014. In 2019, Hamid was named one of the world’s top 50 thinkers by Prospect magazine. His forthcoming book The Problem of Democracy: America, the Middle East, and the Rise and Fall of an Idea will be published by Oxford University Press in 2022. Hamid received his B.S. and M.A. from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and his Ph.D. in political science from Oxford University.

Trita Parsi (Moderator)

Trita Parsi, PhD, is an award-winning author and the 2010 recipient of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. He is an expert on US-Iranian relations, Iranian foreign politics, and the geopolitics of the Middle East. He has authored three books on US foreign policy in the Middle East, with a particular focus on Iran and Israel. He is the co-founder and former President of the National Iranian American Council. He received his PhD in foreign policy at Johns Hopkins’ School for Advanced International Studies, a Master's Degree in International Relations from Uppsala University, and a Master's Degree in Economics from the Stockholm School of Economics.