The United States faces no greater foreign policy challenge than managing the threat from the jihadist regime in Tehran while also standing unequivocally with the Iranian people in their struggle for liberty. Indeed, a succession of U.S. administrations has been wrestling with that challenge for over 31 years. The Islamic Republic of Iran is not easily compared to other nations or even other totalitarian dictatorships: after Arabia, Iran is the second state in the modern era to be captured by violence and ruled by the forces of Islamic jihad. The threat to U.S. national security and international stability derives from the primary mission of this regime, enshrined in its 1989 constitution: the establishment of an Islamic state worldwide and subjugation of all people on earth to Sharia, or Islamic law.
When Iran’s constitutional mandate is coupled with a theological belief system that holds the Shi’ite messianic figure, the Twelfth Imam (or Mahdi), can be prompted to return to earth through the instigation of Armageddon, then 21st century U.S. foreign policy must reckon with 7th century eschatology in quest of the bomb. Whether or not the Supreme Leader and the clerical clique that supports him seek “martyrdom” on a national scale, Iran’s aggressive militarization and international power projection via its terror proxies present U.S. foreign policymakers with a set of challenges that must top the list in terms of immediacy and import.
Nuclear Weapons Ambitions
The Ayatollah Khomeini founded the Iranian revolution in 1979 on a deep-seated hostility to modernization and secularization in an increasingly Westernized world. But it was his near-disastrous military face-off with neighboring Iraq that prompted the order to acquire nuclear weapons. Pursued in secrecy for years before the Iranian opposition’s August 2002 revelations stunned the world, Iran’s quest for the bomb was jump-started by substantial assistance from Pakistan’s AQ Khan in addition to help from China, North Korea, and Russia. After years of defying UN Security Council and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) demands that Iran honor the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and come clean about the entirety and purpose of its nuclear program, today Iran appears closer than ever to achieving a deliverable warhead capability. The threat of Iranian weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proliferation, perhaps to terrorist associates such as al-Qaeda or Hezbollah, represents an additional concern while other regional nuclear programs may well emerge under regimes that fear Iranian hegemony and perceive a diminution of the U.S. leadership role in the world.
Nuclear weapons enable this regime’s key objectives: regime survival as an Islamic jihadist state; regional hegemony in the Middle East and maximization of broader geo-strategic influence; destruction of the State of Israel; and global domination of Islam and Sharia law. Grasping the primacy of these goals, it becomes easier to understand why years of U.S., European, and international negotiations with this regime have come to naught in achieving a voluntary slowing or halt to Iran’s nuclear enrichment activities. Neither have stringent economic sanctions accomplished much beyond imposing additional hardships on the Iranian people. Only a covert campaign aimed at Iranian nuclear scientists, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and intelligence agency defections, and the introduction of sabotaged components into the Iranian nuclear supply chain, reportedly have achieved some involuntary setbacks to the program.
Despite such successes that at best will buy some time, continued U.S. failure to comprehend the eschatological and existential nature of Iran’s nuclear weapons quest leaves it ill-prepared to meet this regime’s hostile intent. Only credible threats to the existence of that regime are likely to have any effect on its determination to carry on. And only regime change in favor of a democratic opposition pledged to eschew WMD of all kinds can eliminate for good the possibility of nukes in the hands of the mullahs.
Alliances in the Axis of Terror
Iran’s chummy relations with regimes hostile to U.S. and Western interests add complexity to dealings with Tehran. Iranian dependence on proliferation assistance for its chemical, biological, nuclear weapons, and missile programs from countries like China, North Korea, Pakistan, and Russia has been problematic for many years. The ineffective international inspection and enforcement mechanisms that allowed nuclear proliferation to culminate in a nuclear weapons capability for Pakistan looks likely to end the same way for Iran. U.S., UN, and other efforts to impose sanctions, pass resolutions, and issue toothless condemnations are mostly disregarded with contempt by the Tehran regime.
Tehran’s closest ally and partner in WMD development and sponsorship of terror is Syria. Iran is the dominant partner in the relationship, but both gain from an alliance that meets strategic needs of each. Iran receives logistical access to its terror proxy, Hezbollah, penetration for its revolution deep into the Arab world, and a frontline position from which to confront Israel. Syria receives a powerful ally that helps it dominate Lebanon (historically considered a Syrian province) and relieves Syria’s isolation as a secular dynasty ruled by the Alawite minority Muslim sect, considered heretical by many Muslims. Given these mutual benefits, U.S. and Israeli fantasies about separating Syria from its Iranian orbit must be seen as the pipedreams they are.
The Iranian ballistic missile program owes much to its North Korean partnership. Tehran and Pyongyang often act as a tag team to demand or distract international attention, but their antics cannot minimize the underlying deadly intent to perfect a nuclear delivery system. Although the Iranians are not known to have achieved yet the difficult task of miniaturizing its warheads to fit ballistic missile nosecones, joint development of this technology with North Korea clearly appears headed in that direction. The threat from Iran’s intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) eventually will reach the U.S. homeland unless steps are taken to forestall that possibility.
Closer to home, the Iranian beachhead in Venezuela raises echoes of the 1960s Cuban missile crisis for strategists observing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s romance with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Since 2001, the two have signed dozens of defense, economic, and political agreements to cement a relationship that provides Iran with intelligence and military outposts in America’s backyard. Chavez assists Iran on myriad fronts, from evading UN sanctions to mining for uranium; Ahmadinejad reciprocates with an influx of military and intelligence operatives who train Venezuelan forces at covert Iranian facilities around the country. The relationship involves Hezbollah as well, as 2010 photos of Venezuelan officials meeting with Hezbollah officials in Lebanon demonstrate. Iran also has been courting other Latin countries, including Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua.
Tehran’s aggressive drive for expanded geo-strategic influence in the Persian Gulf, broader Middle East, and southwest Asia, harnessed to its determination to seize leadership of the international jihad, alarms neighboring Sunni regimes that also fear erosion of the traditional American defense commitment. Iran’s IRGC, Qods Force, Bassij, and Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) are Tehran’s lead organizations for domestic control at home and jihadist terror projection abroad. Each of these demands attention by U.S. policymakers to understand its mission and capabilities, and to formulate effective countermeasures that check Iran’s international agenda.
The IRGC was established by Khomeini in the early months of the 1979 revolution to augment the regular army’s defense of Iran’s borders and ensure the obliteration of Khomeini’s domestic rivals. Later, its primary function became keeping the regime in power, especially after the widespread street demonstrations that followed the June 2009 presidential elections. Afterward, regime fears about survivability led to large infusions of resources to the IRGC to boost its ability to suppress internal regime opposition.
The Qods Force’s stature and capabilities also have expanded in recent years. The operational terror arm of the Iranian regime, the Qods Force is responsible for liaison with Iran’s terror affiliates, including al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Taliban. Both the IRGC and Qods Force (in addition to the MOIS) maintain an undercover presence in Iranian diplomatic facilities worldwide, from which joint al-Qaeda-Hezbollah-Iran operations are launched. Together, they project Iran’s writ in Lebanon, which the UN Special Tribunal on Lebanon looks unlikely to weaken, even with indictments expected to name Qods Force commander, Qassem Suleimani, for his role in the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. IRGC and Qods Force operatives run training camps where Hezbollah explosives experts pass on their deadly skills; they also provide funding, training, and weapons to terrorist militias in Iraq and Taliban forces in Afghanistan. The Qods Force handles Iranian relations with organized crime and narco-traffickers, including Afghan drug lords. Investigative reporting from Africa and the Americas indicates an expanding presence of these terrorist elements in these areas as well.
Meanwhile, in the MOIS, the Iranian regime fields a world-class, well-funded intelligence service that is directly commanded by the Iranian Supreme Leader. Numbering some 30,000 personnel, the MOIS is highly sophisticated as well as brutal and ruthless. Its number one mission is to defend the regime against all threats, domestic or foreign. Together with the IRGC and Qods Force, the MOIS shares responsibility for infiltration and suppression of regime opposition by any and all means and liaison with terror organizations worldwide. U.S. national security leadership should not have too much trouble recognizing its tactics and tradecraft, as the MOIS was trained by the Soviet KGB.
The MOIS has developed an extensive network of individuals, groups, think tanks, and others that the Iranian media have openly referred to as “the Iran Lobby in America.” The principal objective of this lobby is to infiltrate top U.S.-Iran policymakers and persuade them to take a conciliatory approach to the Iranian regime, oppose coercive diplomacy, stringent sanctions, and any sort of military action, and to urge instead a policy of concessions and negotiations. It is concerning that some of the individuals affiliated with the “Iran Lobby” should have found their way into influential government posts as well as positions of trust from which to advise and brief U.S. Iran policymakers.
Indeed, U.S. civilian, intelligence, policy, and military leadership have yet to either comprehend or counter the deadly activities of these regime actors.
A Terrorist Regime’s Terror Ties
There is no clearer evidence of the Iranian regime’s commitment to jihadist violence than the words of its own constitution, calling for the “continuation of that revolution both inside and outside the country.” Regime preference to accomplish that relies on terrorist proxy groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah as well as operational alliances with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other jihadist groups.
Thanks to Iranian funding and training, Hezbollah in 2011 stands on the brink of dominating Lebanon both militarily and politically. Its effective overthrow of the Lebanese government in January 2011, coupled with assumptions of impunity for its role in the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, places the sovereignty of a free Lebanon in jeopardy and poses an important test for U.S. policymakers. Iran both aids and uses Hezbollah’s rise to power in Lebanon as part of its own overall strategy to position itself as a rising regional power and rival to U.S. predominance.
U.S. leaders face a crucial choice: support the brave Lebanese who fought and died for the Cedar Revolution or see Tehran take a front-line position against the State of Israel—which it threatens regularly with genocide—as well as a foothold on the southern shores of the Mediterranean.
Hezbollah not only has developed into one of the most tightly disciplined, superbly trained, and fanatically dedicated fighting forces in the world, but it also has grown into a global terrorist network with a presence in Africa, Europe, and the Americas. That presence directly threatens U.S. national security imperatives, not least because of Hezbollah’s history of acting as the Iranian regime’s cat’s paw for a litany of bloody terror attacks, but also because of its expanding relationships with Mexican and South American drug cartels.
Iran also provides significant material support to Hamas, its Muslim Brotherhood terror proxy in Gaza. That support includes financial infusions, terror training conducted by the IRGC/Qods Force and Hezbollah, and the provision of thousands of rockets and missiles that Hamas launches across the border into Israel. Dismissive of any genuine attempts at nation-building, Hamas under Iranian tutelage instead implements Islamic law and assails Gazan Palestinians with an incessant barrage of media messages conveying Jew-hatred and glorification of suicide killings.
Effective defense of U.S. national security priorities in the Middle East as well as the homeland requires understanding that the Iranian regime has worked for years in close coordination not only with Hezbollah and Hamas, but also with Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and al-Qaeda to mount terrorist operations against U.S., Israeli, and Western interests around the world. This jihadist alliance began when Osama bin Laden contracted with Iran for explosives and other training from Hezbollah’s global terror chieftain, Imad Mughniyah, in the early 1990s. Iran later hired out Hezbollah to Hamas, the Iraqi terror militias, and the Taliban. Major terror attacks from the Khobar Towers bombing to the East Africa Embassy bombings, the attack on the USS Cole, September 11, and attacks against U.S. and Coalition partners in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, are the result of this tri-partite arrangement.
Iran and these jihadist organizations are unified in their enmity to the U.S., Israel, and all Western-style civilization. U.S. policymakers must prioritize the urgency of studying their motivation to wage doctrinally-commanded jihad against non-Muslim targets for the purpose of imposing Sharia worldwide. Unequivocal denunciation of Iranian-sponsored terrorism and refusal to legitimize terrorist policies even when supported by a radicalized electorate must be the cornerstones of American leadership.
Tehran’s 21st Century Threat
The history of the Khomeinist regime in Iran has been written in blood: first and foremost, the blood of its own people, but also in every place the regime’s emissaries—the IRGC, Qods Force, MOIS, Hamas, Hezbollah, and others—have extended their reach. The U.S. holds a leadership role in the free world; people everywhere yearning for liberty look to the U.S. for moral inspiration and a superpower’s protection against tyranny. Tehran’s naked ambition for geo-strategic hegemony, inexorable march to a nuclear weapons capability, embrace of terror as a policy tool, and horrific record of human rights abuses at home define a regime that is deeply and inherently destabilizing to the international system.
U.S. policy decisions about how to deal with this Iranian regime will be among the most crucial American leadership must make in the coming months. Underestimating the hostile intent of Iran’s agenda or failing to recognize the compelling strength of the Islamic jihadist ideology that binds them and their terror allies together in enmity to free societies under rule of man-made law will lead to increasing global destabilization. U.S. leadership must grapple with the reality that this Iranian regime is a serious adversary that poses a grave threat to the democratic way of life everywhere. Absent a strong, credible U.S. response, Tehran will interpret American resolve as lacking and react accordingly—advancing its hegemony over neighbors, threatening Israel, and holding U.S. policy hostage to terror and nuclear blackmail. Should Washington falter before this challenge, not only would it fail the American and Iranian people alike, but it would betray the United States’ essential commitment to defend liberty wherever it is threatened by tyranny.
Clare Lopez is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Policy (CSP). She is the co-author of two books about Iran and the Iranian opposition, and also a member of CSP’s Team B II, which published the best seller, Shariah: The Threat to America in late 2010.