In his State of the Union address, President Obama forcefully announced he would not accept “a nuclear-armed Iran.” This reflects his view that the only objectionable element of Iran’s behavior would be acquisition and possible use of such weapons. This is conveniently narrow.
While the ability to produce nuclear weapons quickly and in secret — if it hasn’t already done so — is important, Iran pursues a wide variety of long-term Shiite religious and Persian imperial goals in the Middle East and Africa, and in the Western Hemisphere. To succeed broadly, Tehran needs time, money, and the absence of Western pushback. Having the president focus on nuclear weapons later rather than current Iranian behavior at home and abroad is helpful to them.
Any great campaign, including Iran’s, requires money. Years of sanctions plus crashing of oil prices, coupled with enormous domestic subsidies and payouts to Hezbollah, Syria, Hamas, and others should have put Iran in desperate straits. But Washington, according to the State Department, will release a total of $11.9 billion to Iran through June 2015 if the U.S.-Iran talks continue to their projected end. Sen. Mark Kirk told the Washington Free Beacon, that in just the last 9 months of that period, “Direct forms of sanctions relief will allow Iran access to roughly $4.9 billion in frozen money. That’s equal to what it’d cost Iran to fund Hezbollah for as much as 50 years.” (The Pentagon has estimated Iran spends $100-200 million on Hezbollah annually.)
The president’s veto threat means the mullahs don’t have to choose among nasty goals and beneficiaries. It was disconcerting to imagine them applauding as the president chastised the elected representatives of the American people on behalf of a monstrously repressive cabal.
Local Hegemony. Sunni Arab Saudi Arabia is Iran’s historic enemy, and the small vulnerable Sunni-Arab-but-with-considerable-Shiite-minority Gulf States look to the kingdom for protection. But the Iranian navy is well equipped to work in the shallow Persian Gulf, giving it the potential to threaten oil exports and recalcitrant rulers.
The 2011 Bahrain uprising was largely engineered by Iran, as is the 2014/5 “rolling coup” in Yemen by Shiite Houthis that appears now include Houthis in the presidential palace, if not in actual governing control. Just a few months ago, President Obama called Yemen a success: “Taking out terrorists… while supporting partners on the front lines, is (a strategy) we have successfully pursued in Yemen…” Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority, living primarily in the oil-producing regions, has been exploited by Iran.
Regional Hegemony. Sunni Arab Egypt is Iran’s other historic enemy. Iranian weapons, fighters, and money pass through the Sinai headed toward Gaza and, perhaps Cairo. Egypt’s hard line on Hamas is in part its hard line on Iran.
Iraq is beholden to Tehran for military, economic and political support. Iran is not altruistic — hatred for Iraqi Arabs based on the memory of the Iran-Iraq war and Iran wants Iraq subservient for future protection.
Iran is the patron of Bashar Assad and Hezbollah. The civil war, expected by Iran and Russia to be quick and brutal, has become a stalemate. Assad controls about one third to one half of the country, including many of the military assets; ISIS/IL has almost doubled its holdings in Syria since last August. The war has spilled over into Lebanon, creating new fractures between Sunni and Shiite factions in that unhappy country, and American ally Jordan is feeling pressure from nearly a million Syrian refugees and threats to the monarchy.
The fact that an Iranian general was killed in the car Israel demolished last week is an indication of how seriously Iran is committed to hanging on to what remains of Assad’s holdings in the face of increased Sunni jihadist gains. Hezbollah, armed, trained, and paid by Iran for years, is all-in to protect both its patrons even after losing more than 500 fighters in Syria.
South America. This is almost a “freebie,” as the U.S. has been notoriously unconscious about the state of its southern neighbors and their self-perceived interests. While lifting parts of the U.S. embargo on Cuba did remove a regional irritant from the next meeting of the OAS, the role of Iran in Venezuela and Argentina has been ignored.
Iran’s Ahmadinejad cultivated Venezuela’s Chavez as an anti-American compatriot closer to the U.S. homeland than Iran could otherwise expect to find itself. The relationship outlasted Chavez’s death and Ahmadinejad’s departure from power. The two countries have nearly 300 signed agreements, but among the most important is the one obviating visa requirements for Iranians landing in Venezuela. The Pentagon has reported at least since 2010 that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) operates freely there. And it defies credulity to believe the death of Alberto Nisman was anything but murder. Nisman was about to testify that Argentine officials, including the president, conspired to cover Iranian responsibility for the 1994 AMIA Jewish Center bombing in exchange for oil supplies. The New York Times reported, “Just one day earlier, on Saturday… Nisman said, “I might get out of this dead.”
Repression at home. Far from being “moderate,” Iran’s Rouhani government, installed in August 2013, is a massive killer at home. There were 381 executions by the end of that year, and 781 in 2014, with the pace accelerating toward the end of the year. The victims are often hung from cranes in public with an audience that includes children. Roving gangs throw acid in the faces of women not considered “modest,” probably at the instigation of the Basiji paramilitary police. There are reports of increasing pressure on non-Muslim communities, and American citizens Pastor Saeed Abedini, former Marine Amir Hekmati and Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian are being held in Iranian prison, in some cases without charges.
In each case of Iranian hegemonic interest, it is at least as important for the regime to string out the process, make advances, find financing and draw in as many willing, naïve or greedy international parties as possible. With his focus solely on nuclear weapons, President Obama has missed perhaps the last, best opportunity to stymie the mullahs.