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Looming Threat

By refusing to directly confront Iran’s provocations, the United States has become the Islamic Republic’s key ally in its march toward a nuclear bomb

Lee Smith
October 19, 2011
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and a meeting of the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week.(Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and a meeting of the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week.(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Why hasn’t the Obama Administration made more of the fact that the Iranian plot recently disrupted by U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials included the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Washington? It’s true that the Saudi ambassador to the United States was identified specifically as an assassination target, but the threat was the same against both the Saudi and Israeli embassies—which means that in addition to hundreds of Sunni Arabs dead in Foggy Bottom, there could have been hundreds of dead Jews in Cleveland Park.

It’s strange the White House would miss an opportunity to pose as Israel’s worried and protective friend and ally, especially facing a presidential election campaign that some worry is losing Jewish support and money. After all, administration figures like Vice President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta can’t insist strongly enough that Israel is isolated from the rest of the world and that the United States is the only one in its corner.

Amid all the different theories concerning the Iran plot—that the Iranians aren’t really behind it because they’re too smart, or that it was orchestrated by a rogue element of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards looking to embarrass Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—it is perhaps most useful to look at this recent effort as the final test Iran will face before it gets a nuclear weapon. Seen this way, it is clear that the White House wouldn’t want to highlight Israel’s spot in Iran’s crosshairs, because no matter how many times President Barack Obama tells Israeli officials and Jewish audiences that an Iranian nuclear bomb would be unacceptable, his administration’s real policy position has just been exposed. A demand for more sanctions against Tehran in response to an operation intended to slaughter hundreds of American allies in the U.S. capital—in a series of attacks that would have also caused hundreds of American casualties—makes it clear to everyone, especially the Iranians, that Washington isn’t going to do anything serious about stopping Iran’s nuclear-weapons program.

Because Washington doesn’t want to do anything about Iran, it has little choice but to ignore it—or deny its machinations. Let’s look at the Iranian record in Iraq, and how former and current U.S. officials chose to explain it away. In 2007, Gen. Peter Pace, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he doubted that the Iranian government knew about the Iranian-manufactured IEDs killing American soldiers. The same year, Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and a National Security Council staffer under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, claimed that the “The involvement of these outside actors”—that is, Iran-backed militias—“is not likely to be a major driver of violence” in Iraq. And most recently, Biden told a veterans group last summer that “Iranian influence in Iraq is minimal. It’s been greatly exaggerated.”

This gives rise to the notion that the Iranians are endowed with supernatural powers that allow them to wage operations around the world so clever and sophisticated in their planning and execution that they barely show any fingerprints. But it is not Washington’s lack of evidence that creates this idea; rather it is absence of will.

The 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut and the attack of the U.S. embassy there the year before, as well as the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, all bore the imprint of the Islamic Republic. The 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy in Iran and the 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie clearly did. Indeed, the whole point of Tehran’s policy of terror is to lay claim to its actions and dare the United States to respond—which Washington doesn’t. What Ayatollah Khomeini said about the embassy hostage crisis more than 30 years ago still holds true: “The Americans can’t do a damn thing about it.” Admitting Iran’s involvement in repeated acts of terror would require the United States to act—something American policymakers believe that we are unable to do.

But the reality is that the United States can do something about it, if Washington wanted to. American taxpayers would be rightly aggrieved that our defense budget is so high if our elected leaders can’t stop an adversary that speedboats to harass a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf and includes Toyota pick-up trucks in its order of battle. Surely the far-superior American military is capable of bringing Iran’s armed forces to heel.

The problem is that Obama’s White House, like George W. Bush’s, fears that taking too active a role against Iran and its assets will put U.S. military personnel at risk of Iranian retaliation in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to some U.S. intelligence estimates, Shiite Iran is responsible for far more American deaths and injuries in America’s two Middle East combat theaters than al-Qaida or other Sunni factions. That means that American strategists, civilian and military, no longer consider the U.S. military a deterrent to Iranian actions; rather, the presence of American troops in theaters where the Iranians also operate has effectively deterred the United States from taking action against Tehran.

U.S. involvement in the Middle East and Washington’s policy of not confronting Iran about its openly aggressive behavior have created a situation in which our troops are now effectively being held hostage, a situation that Iran underlines with each new act of aggression and terror. Which is why U.S. policymakers cannot recognize the pending withdrawal from Iraq—or what is effectively the liberation of many thousands of American hostages—as an opportunity to go after Iran. Instead, Washington will continue to wage clandestine operations against Tehran—like killing Iranian nuclear scientists and sabotaging Iranian centrifuges with a computer worm. None of those operations will stop the Islamic Republic from getting the bomb—rather, that secret war, presumably conducted in tandem with Israel, is meant only to deter the Jewish state from attacking Iran in earnest.

Yes, the Iranians hate the Saudis, who reciprocate the sentiment, and the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, targeted in the disrupted plot, seems especially detested by the Islamic Republic. As the WikiLeaks cables showed, it was al-Jubeir who reminded U.S. diplomats that Saudi King Abdullah “told you to cut off the head of the snake,” meaning Iran. The point of the Iranian plot was to show that the Americans are incapable of protecting their allies, even in the U.S. capital. But as mad as the Saudis are at Washington for not doing anything about the Iranians, sometime down the road they’ll be prepared to grit their teeth and cut a bargain with their foe. There is no such deal in the offing for the Jewish state.

More to the point, the Iranians recognize that unlike Saudi Arabia, Israel is capable of doing something about the Islamic Republic’s ambitions. In the last five years, Jerusalem has waged war against two of Tehran’s clients, Hezbollah in the summer of 2006 and Hamas in the winter of 2008-09. Also, it’s worth remembering that the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires and the 1994 attack on a Jewish community center there were retaliations for Israel’s assassination of Hezbollah’s then-leader Abbas Mussawi. (Iran and Hezbollah left their fingerprints on those operations, too. The issue in Argentina was not insufficient evidence but police and prosecutorial incompetence.)

If the only country able and willing to go after Iran’s nuclear program is Israel, the only one who is capable of stopping the Israelis, Tehran realizes, is the United States. And so Iran and the United States now find themselves in one of the Middle East’s oddest alliances, with the United States unwittingly aiding Iran in its effort to get the bomb. If this happens, Tehran will use this new weapon to remake the political map of the Middle East in ways that are very unlikely to benefit the United States, and will directly threaten the survival of its closest ally.

Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.