October 12, 2011

Drawing Back the Curtain on Iran

Originally published in CNN Global Public Square

The Iranian Qods Force plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. in Washington in a terrorist attack using Mexican drug cartel associates shows the complex threat the Iranian regime poses. Had the attack succeeded, it would have marked a dramatic escalation in the Iranian war against Saudi Arabia, which Tehran has hitherto waged primarily by proxy. It would also have been an escalation of the decades-long war Iran has waged against the U.S., which Tehran has fought largely indirectly rather than on American soil.

Although these planned assassinations would have marked an escalation in Iranian hostility toward the U.S., we must also consider the plot in the broader context. For years the Islamic Republic of Iran has flouted international norms in its pursuit of nuclear weapons, its support for terrorism against American and allied interests, its destabilizing actions in the Middle East, and its brutal repression of its own citizens. In each of these areas Tehran’s hard-line leaders have been emboldened in recent years. Despite sanctions and repeated denunciations in international fora, Iran has developed its nuclear capabilities and overcome many of the most significant technical obstacles to developing a usable nuclear weapon, of which the most important was developing the ability to enrich uranium to 20%. The challenge of getting from 20% to weapons-grade fuel is far less imposing than that of enriching to 20% at all. International pressure and supposed isolation has failed to prevent Iran from advancing rapidly toward the ability to field nuclear weapons.

Iran has also expanded ties to terrorist and insurgent proxy groups in the broader Middle East beyond its longstanding support for Hezbollah and Hamas. The full extent of Iranian meddling during the Arab Spring is unclear, but the regime has exploited the situation and the unrest has provided an opening for it to undermine Sunni Arab Gulf countries that it has on occasion attempted to destabilize. Internally, the regime orchestrated a violent crackdown on dissent and opposition following the rise of the Green Movement inside Iran in 2009.

The disrupted plot is yet another, albeit significantly more dramatic, escalation of Iran’s war against the U.S., Israel, and, now Saudi Arabia. What does it mean for the United States? Beyond the tactical consideration of countering the Qods Force as a terrorist organization that now seeks to operate within American territory, it is time to recognize that past and present strategies aimed at curbing Iran’s ambitions and aggression are failing. The regime in Tehran and its agents are growing more hostile and have signaled in numerous ways that they remain at war with the U.S. and that they have no interest in reconciling or coming in from the cold. The Qods Force’s deadly designs are inextricably linked to the broader challenge posed by the Iranian regime, a challenge that appears only to be growing.