With the acceptance of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA or "the Iran Deal") there is a tendency in some quarters to believe that the Iran issue has been resolved, allowing the United States to "pivot" to the Far East or turn to urgent domestic issues. Ilan Berman's Iran's Deadly Ambition puts any such notions to rest. His book dwells neither on the technical nor the geostrategic aspects of the Islamic Republic's nuclear program, and touches only in passing on the regime's repressive domestic politics and its deplorable human rights record. Instead, Berman analyzes Iran's foreign policy, focusing specifically on how it works ceaselessly to weaken Israel and to challenge U.S. interests throughout the world.
Berman's thesis is that "Iran, a regime in profound demographic crisis and political flux, is still animated by an uncompromising religious worldview that sees itself at war with the West." The main corollary is that, notwithstanding the JCPOA, the Iranians are "busy translating their vision of world influence into action." The book, written in clear prose devoid of any academic jargon, carefully documents how Iran's tentacles have spread throughout the Middle East and beyond, including Africa, Latin America, and parts of the Far East. Berman devotes little space to the ideological and religious sources of Iranian expansionism, preferring to let the facts on the ground speak for themselves. He makes clear, however, that Iran's goals are not exclusively religious. Tehran is active in many areas (including North Korea and Latin America) where there are few Muslims to mobilize in favor of Iran's Islamic revolution but many anti-Western forces ready to collaborate with Iran's anti-American geostrategic goals.
An important secondary theme of Iran's Deadly Ambition is that Tehran's foreign policy strategy has remained remarkably constant during the 36 years since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini deposed the Shah. From the start, Tehran's global agenda has had three distinct but interlocking fronts: promoting sectarian Shia interests throughout the Islamic world, positioning Iran to displace Saudi Arabia as the world's pan-Islamic champion and backing Third World populism to weaken U.S. and Western interests. Berman shows how early on the Islamic Republic created an elite force—the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)—to implement Iranian expansionism. The IRGC quickly became a "state within a state" that now dominates at least one third of Iran's economy, runs the nuclear and ballistic missile programs, controls most of its major naval assets, and commands the Qods Force, a sophisticated and deadly special operations cadre devoted exclusively to "exporting" the Iranian revolution. Berman concedes that Tehran frequently makes tactical shifts to adjust to changing circumstances—such as adopting a less strident rhetoric after Khomeini died and the Iran-Iraq War ended —but correctly warns that we should not confuse such shifts with changes in Tehran's basic strategy. He shows that the occasional conciliatory statements and actions by "reformist" Presidents such as Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) and current leader Hassan Rouhani have never softened the contours of Iran's aggressive foreign policy, mainly because the unelected Supreme Leader and the IRGC—not Iran's elected Presidents—control the levers of power.
The bulk of Berman's book consists of a data-rich round-the-world survey highlighting Iranian subversion of legitimate governments, support for sundry terrorist groups, and alliances with anti-Western forces as varied as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and North Korea's Kim Jong-un. Starting with an overview of how Iran has used the chaos created by the Arab Spring to extend its influence throughout the Middle East, he concludes that Iran now calls most of the shots in Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut, and is helping Yemen's Shia Houthi rebels fight that country's Sunni majority. He aptly quotes a senior aid to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as boasting that "Iran's border defense is [now] southern Lebanon's frontier with Israel and our deep defensive strategy has reached the Mediterranean above Israel's head." In his chapter on terrorism, Berman illustrates the global ubiquity and reach of Tehran's terror infrastructure and stresses how Iran's tactical flexibility enables it to work with Sunni groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad against Israel, and the Taliban against the United States.
Perhaps the book's biggest contribution to exposing Tehran's aggressive foreign policy is Berman's careful examination of Iranian penetration in Africa and Latin America—areas that one does not automatically associate with Iranian subversion. He explains how Iran uses proxies—most prominently Hezbollah in Africa and to a lesser degree in parts of South America—to advance its goals. In Africa, Iran has shipped weapons to Hamas in the Gaza Strip via Sudan, and has used Hezbollah to arm and train insurgents in Nigeria. Hezbollah has also been involved in suspicious activities in Sierra Leone, Cote d'Ivoire, and Senegal.
In Latin America, Iranian subversion dates back at least to the bombings of the Israeli Embassy and the headquarters of Argentina's Jewish Federation in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994—acts of terrorism that remain unpunished to this day, and which as recently as this year led to the highly suspicious "suicide" of the lead Argentine investigator into these crimes. Berman also shows that Iran's activities in Latin America cannot be dismissed, as some have quipped, as a mere "axis of annoyance." In fact, Tehran has thrice used Latin American assets to target the United States: in 2007 Mohsen Rabbani, the mastermind of the Argentina bombings, sponsored a Guyanese national to try to blow up fuel tanks underneath JFK Airport in New York; in 2011 the IRGC tried to use Mexican drug cartels to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador in Washington D.C. and to bomb both the Saudi and Israeli embassies in our nation's capital; and in the same year Tehran hired Venezuelan and Mexican hackers to penetrate U.S. defense and intelligence facilities and mount sophisticated cyber-attacks throughout America. The fact that U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies thwarted all these attempts should not blind us to their serious nature and the danger that Iran will use Latin America, in the future, as a base to mount anti-U.S. terrorism.
In 2014, Dr. Phil Gordon, then Special Assistant to the President and White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf Region, and a prime architect of the Iran Deal, predicted that "a nuclear agreement [with Iran] could begin a multigenerational process that could lead to a new relationship between our countries." Berman's book demonstrates conclusively that this hope remains in the realm of wishful thinking. There is not a shred of evidence that Iran is ready to jettison its huge domestic and foreign infrastructure of terror and subversion or relinquish its openly stated goal of destroying Israel in order to achieve a wider rapprochement with the West. Indeed, Supreme Leader Khamenei recently prohibited all negotiations between Iran and the United States that are not directly related to the recent nuclear agreement. There could be no better illustration of Berman's conclusion that no nuclear agreement will eliminate Iran's strategic threat "because the threat emanates not from Iran's nuclear program but from the Iranian regime itself."
This book should be read by all those concerned with the Iranian threat, and perhaps especially by those who are not. Its clear and concise text and wealth of detailed information make crystal clear just how flimsy the arguments are of those who allege that Iran's foreign policy is purely defensive, that Tehran does not directly threaten the United States, and that Iran will become harmless now that it has achieved some of its nuclear goals. Thirty-six years after Ayatollah Khomeini founded the Islamic Republic, Iran remains "a radical expansionist and revisionist state" ready and eager to confront America around the globe.