It looks like the Iran nuclear talks are stretching on for a bit longer. Talk is good; talk is usually better than conflict. Plus, our Secretary of State has the remarkable personal capacity to patiently talk the other side into somnolence. There is also the larger hope that these talks, as deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes at the Aspen Ideas Festival recently articulated will generate “an evolution in Iranian behavior.”
Yet there’s a nagging fundamental that will torpedo any further US-Iranian rapprochement: policymakers in Tehran still perceive acts of terror to generate real political dividends. In other words, they assess terrorism works—including, when it suits them, terrorism against American interests. An agreement to keep Tehran from the bomb doesn’t change this overall calculus.
Why would Iran even now consider using terrorism against America and our allies? Several reasons: First, Iranian-sponsored terrorism against America very successfully worked in the past. We Americans often forget President Reagan pulled military forces from Lebanon a little more than three months after Hizbollah carried out a devastating Marine barracks bombing in 1983. Furthermore, Reagan didn’t avenge this terrible attack in any meaningful way.
More recently, according to its internal narrative, Iranian proxies helped exhaust and drive U.S. forces from Iraq. Iran has had its surrogates sow sophisticated improvised explosive devices used to destroy U.S. military vehicles and kill U.S. personnel. One Iranian-backed group, Asaib ahl al-Haq, reportedly attacked U.S. forces 6,000 times since its creation in 2006 and was responsible for kidnapping and murdering five U.S. servicemen in Karbala. In 2011, Iran’s proxy forces were increasing efforts to strike departing U.S. forces; then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates noted these groups were bent on “killing as many as possible in order to demonstrate to the Iraqi people that, in effect, they drove us out of Iraq at the end of the year.”
Today, there are over three thousand U.S. troops deployed in Iraq, again attempting to build non-sectarian security forces loyal to Baghdad. Fortunately, no Americans have yet died on this mission, but this could quickly change if Iran or one of its proxies think would benefit them in some way to turn up the heat.
This might happen sooner rather than later. There already are rumors spreading in Iraq that the U.S. is secretly assisting ISIS. Some American helicopters have reportedly taken fire from Iranian-backed, anti-ISIS forces. One militia leader has already called for “vengeance” against the U.S. after a friendly fire incident reportedly occurred.
Second, part of Iran’s overall regional strategy is to marginalize American influence by keeping us off-balance, and terrorism helps in that effort. After all, Tehran is funding the Taliban and other proxies across the globe. Iran is still arming and funding terror groups. Iran is still working with North Korea on ballistic missile cooperation. Tehran is also forging ahead with offensive cyber-operations against American companies and critical infrastructure.
Finally, committing terrorism would send a powerful message Iran remains committed to its revolutionary ideology and its international ambitions. Humiliating the U.S. on the heels of “winning” the nuclear talks would provide Iran further political capital to spend against its rivals. Don’t take my word for it; a top IRGC official, Ali Shirazi, recently said, “We shall not rest until we raise the flag of Islam over the White House.”
Perhaps America’s greatest challenge is emphasizing that American redlines actually exist—and crossing them would have devastating consequences. It was only a few years ago that high-level Iranian officials, perhaps even Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself, authorized a plot to bomb an upscale Washington D.C. restaurant while the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. dined there. Orchestrating such a hit in the American capital—a type of attack that hasn’t occurred in decades—is an extraordinary decision, and one that should trigger a massive American response.
Iran’s homeland terror plot didn’t work out, but what price did it actually pay for attempting such an audacious-if-sloppily-executed operation? Not much, at least publicly. And most of the relevant personalities who authorized that operation remain in power.
So, what can America do to confront this present and future Iranian challenge? One way is to begin to improve our Gulf Arab and Egyptian relations, which have soured over the nuclear negotiations. Standing more decisively with our historical regional partners will allow us to maximize joint intelligence and law enforcement efforts during this period of profound flux. The President’s recent Camp David summit was a good start, but clearly stronger measures are required if we want to reduce the growing strategic divide between our Arab partners and the U.S.
Beyond this, we must build upon our counterterrorism readiness against in North America. Without much public fanfare, the United States, Canada, and Mexico have agreed to better confront the interconnected danger of terrorism in our respective homelands. In 2012—partly in response to the 2011 terror plot—the American, Mexican and Canadian militaries issued a first-ever Continental Threat Assessment, listing terrorism as one of five primary threats to North America. This has led to vastly increased cooperation among our policy, defense, law enforcement, and intelligence personnel on thwarting terror threats. This focus must continue.
This includes sending a clear signal to Latin America’s criminal syndicates that working with the Iranians will cause terrible costs to their business. The drug cartels primarily exist to turn a profit, and “foreign” terrorists would bring additional unwelcome American focus to their criminal enterprise. America must underscore working with the Iranians would be a lethally short-sighted business decision.
To be sure, Tehran might not have any anti-U.S. operations on the books. Maybe the Supreme Leader and the IRGC will turn over a new leaf after the nuclear deal is concluded. Maybe the Iranian leaders who want peace and mutual prosperity with the U.S. will win the day at home.
But hope is not a plan. The Iran of today will most likely be the Iran of tomorrow. The relevant national security leaders and their strategic calculus won’t suddenly change even without an immediate path to the bomb. Iran has successfully committed terrorist acts against the U.S. for over thirty years. A nuclear compromise won’t change what Tehran perceives as an effective tool in their national security toolkit.
photo: IRGC Commanders and senior staff (IRNA)