On Tuesday, the Obama administration dropped what amounts to a major bombshell when it announced that the FBI had successfully disrupted a plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador to the United States being planned by the Qods Force, the paramilitary arm of Iran's clerical army, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
On one level, the news isn't surprising at all. According to the State Department, Iran is the world's "most active state sponsor of terrorism," and in that capacity sponsors a broad range of terrorist groups throughout the greater Middle East. Over the past decade, it also has emerged as a major source of instability in both Iraq and Afghanistan, bankrolling radical Shi'ite militias in their fight against the Coalition in the former, and supplying weapons and training to Taliban irregulars in the latter.
On another, however, the plot is deeply significant, insofar as it represents a sea-change in Iran's strategic posture. In the heady decade that followed the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Iranian regime gained worldwide notoriety for its support of global terror. During that period, it established the terrorist powerhouse Hezbollah in Lebanon, carried out repeated acts of subversion in the Persian Gulf, and was even implicated in waves of bombings in Western Europe. However, in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) and the death of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, Iranian strategy underwent a major metamorphosis. The Iranian regime became more circumspect in its approach, preferring to operate via proxies and asymmetric warfare. Now, Tehran seems again to be embracing a more aggressive foreign policy line, one which directly employs terrorism in and against the West.
The plot also marks a major escalation in the "cold war" taking place between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In recent years, and particularly since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, the strategic rivalry between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Iran has become a defining feature of Middle Eastern politics. The stakes in this struggle are enormous; they extend far beyond the future of Iraq, to the direction of the broader "Arab Spring" and the "hearts and minds" of hundreds of millions of Muslims. That Iran was willing to target a sitting Saudi official in a Western capital speaks volumes about just how seriously Tehran is taking this ideological and geopolitical contest – and how far it is willing to go in order to win it.
Finally, and most significantly, the foiled plot exposes a critical deficiency in current U.S. homeland security and counterterrorism policy. Over the past two decades, Iran has managed to establish a major beachhead in Latin America, aided by the region's large ungoverned spaces and widespread anti-Americanism. (The extensive strategic partnership between Iran and Venezuela is just the most visible fruit of that effort.) It has also helped Hezbollah, its principal terrorist proxy, set up shop south of the American border, with significant results. The Lebanese militia now boasts an extensive web of activity in our Hemisphere, stretching from Mexico to Argentina and encompassing everything from drug trafficking to recruitment to fundraising and training. And while the U.S. government may understand that these activities are both extensive and potentially threatening, policymakers in Washington so far have failed to focus on them in a serious or sustained way. That the Iranian plotters opted to use Mexico as a key hub for their activities, however, suggests that our government needs to do so without delay.
Nearly a decade after 9/11, reasonable minds can disagree about how long the United States still needs to stay in Afghanistan, and how extensive our commitment there should be. What is clear, however, is that America's leverage over Afghan politics and security begins to shrink dramatically once we do begin to withdraw.
That's what makes the Obama administration's anticipated announcement of plans to start scaling down forces there so potentially self-defeating. The White House has flirted at length with the idea of engaging the Taliban, and informal talks now finally seem to be getting underway. Such a strategy might make sense if the Taliban were on the ropes, without any hope of besting the U.S. and its Coalition allies.
But with withdrawal now a reality, the Taliban can envision the day when the U.S. and its allies are no longer invested in Afghanistan in a real, tangible sense. And because they can, there's little incentive for them to make any serious compromises over their vision for the country – or, if they do, to honor those commitments once the Coalition departs.
Simply put, our credibility with allies and adversaries alike depends in large part on our staying power – and on our outlining a long-term strategy in the struggle against militant Islam. An America that's eyeing the exits in the War on Terror's first front simply can't do that.
The near-disaster that took place in the skies over Detroit on Christmas Day has refocused domestic attention on an issue that has dominated headlines for much of the past year. That issue is the state of U.S. counterterrorism strategy, and the picture isn't pretty.
Since taking office last January, Team Obama has focused extensively on the most obvious battlefields in what was once known as the "War on Terror." It has moved ahead with its pledge to draw down troops in Iraq, where stability is slowly but surely returning. And it has bolstered its commitment to Afghanistan through a significant troop surge and a new policy approach that takes a more holistic view of the causes and consequences of conflict there.
You might have missed it, but the past month has opened a new page in Iran's confrontation with the West.
On November 28th, the Iranian government dramatically upped the stakes in the international standoff over its nuclear program when it approved a plan to build ten new uranium enrichment facilities in the near future. Never mind that the plan is much more rhetoric than reality. (In the six-and-a-half years since Iran's nuclear program became public, the country has managed to amass less than 10,000 centrifuges. At this rate, gathering the 500,000 units that Iranian officials desire could literally take hundreds of years.) What is important is that Iran has directly repudiated the IAEA's call, issued two days earlier, for it to cease enrichment work and close its newly-disclosed Qom site. The message could not be any clearer: Iran is not willing to alter its nuclear plans in any substantial way, despite the best diplomatic efforts of the Obama administration or anyone else.
Years from now, historians are likely to look back on November 13th as the day the War on Terror died.
The Obama administration's decision, announced publicly on Friday, to bring terror mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others to New York to stand trial in federal court for the atrocities of September 11th is flawed on many levels. For one thing, it wipes away years of progress and preparation by the U.S. military in bringing Mohammed and his co-conspirators to justice by way of military tribunal. For another, as former Justice Department official John Yoo writes in the Wall Street Journal, it is a potential "intelligence bonanza" for al-Qaeda, forcing the U.S. government to publicly reveal classified sources and methods used by the intelligence community in order to ensure a conviction. Most significant of all, however, is what it tells us about the Obama administration's attitudes toward the War on Terror.
In the days after September 11th, the Bush administration correctly recognized that the attacks on Washington and New York carried out by al-Qaeda were tantamount to a declaration of war against the United States. Thereafter, terrorists captured on the battlefield in places like Afghanistan and Iraq were classified as "unlawful combatants" - a military term that explicitly put those foreign radicals outside the purview of U.S. domestic law. The Obama administration's decision to abandon that framework in favor of a civilian one that provides the 9/11 plotters with the same legal protection U.S. citizens receive puts mass casualty terrorism on the same legal footing as burglary and rape, and serves as the strongest repudiation to date of the idea that we are at actually war with the forces of radical Islam.
All of which should be deeply disheartening to Americans of all political stripes. This summer, the President's top counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, told a Washington audience that, unlike his predecessor's more ambitious plans for a "global" struggle against Islamic extremism, President Obama is focused strictly on a narrow "war with al-Qaeda." Friday's decision, however, indicates that the White House now has abandoned even that comparatively modest objective.
Just what part of the word "no" don't we understand? Over the past month, the Obama administration's much-anticipated plans for detente with Iran have run up against some harsh realities. The tentative deal struck on October 1st in Geneva, under which Iran agreed to outsource a significant part of its uranium enrichment, has now officially collapsed, with Iran days ago formally rejecting the UN-sponsored plan to send its stockpile to Russia and France.
Official Washington, however, doesn't seem to have gotten the picture. The Obama White House, having been rebuffed in its diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis over Iran's nuclear ambitions, now appears more eager than ever to embark upon more of the same. Reuters reports that the Administration, far from being discouraged, is now "willing to give Iran time to decide whether to accept a U.N. draft deal that is meant to defuse nuclear tensions with world powers." Washington, in other words, is not taking no for an answer.
All of which is reminiscent of an exchange that took place on an AFPC-sponsored visit to India in early 2007. As part of discussions in New Delhi, the delegation was granted an audience with Indian National Security Advisor MK Narayanan. When asked about India's approach toward Iran, Narayanan affirmed Delhi's commitment to "dialogue" to resolve the then-already-acute crisis over Iran's nuclear program. When pressed about the possibility that negotiations may not resolve the impasse with Tehran, Narayanan answered with conviction: "diplomacy cannot be allowed to fail."
The message was clear: back then, India didn't have a "Plan B" for dealing with Iran. Today, it's the United States that doesn't.
For those who aren't regular watchers of Palestinian politics, this week was just like any other. For those who are, however, all eyes have been on the Sixth Fatah General Congress taking place in Bethlehem. The conclave, the first gathering of the Palestine Liberation Organization's political core since 1989, is being seen by many as a make-or-break moment — an opportunity for the faction to modernize its political positions and bring itself into the political mainstream.
Timing, they say, is everything. At the moment, no one knows that better than the EastWest Institute. On Tuesday, with much fanfare, the New York-based think tank released what it billed as the "first-ever U.S.-Russian joint threat assessment" on Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities. The report is a study in threat minimization, with every possible technological impediment to Iran's emergence as a nuclear power highlighted and stressed. Of particular note, however, is its take on Iran's burgeoning ballistic missile arsenal. Despite official pronouncements from Tehran on the subject, the report concludes, there is currently no evidence that Iran has a ballistic missile with a range of 2,000 kilometers. So imagine the Institute's surprise and chagrin when, less than twenty-four hours later, the Islamic Republic successfully tested just such a capability: the 2,000 kilometer range solid fuel Sajjil-2, capable of striking southeastern Europe and U.S. bases throughout the Middle East.
By now, the idea that Iran is the world's leading sponsor of international terrorism is fairly common knowledge. Even so, the State Department's annual survey of global terrorism trends provides a useful glimpse into the breathtaking scope of Tehran's regional troublemaking. According to the latest edition of Country Reports on Terrorism, released on April 30th by State's Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Iran "remained the most active state sponsor of terrorism" in 2008, responsible for violence and instability that thwarted "international efforts to promote peace, threatened economic stability in the Gulf, and undermined the growth of democracy."