The Blog

On to Iran! (part 2)

11:00 PM, Feb 8, 2002 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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AND IRAN'S ruling clergy has probably been reading the Middle East more or less the same way as the Sunni fundamentalists who made bin Laden and al Qaeda paladins in their battle against the West. The perception of the United States as weak and on the run--the jet-fuel behind Osama bin Laden's holy-warrior call to arms--is not unique to Sunni Arab Muslims. Iran's clerics, particularly the hard core, who dominate the country's government, were acutely aware of the Clinton administration's tendency to scoot in difficult times. They had a ringside seat for America's hapless flailings against Saddam Hussein throughout the 1990s. They paid close attention to our halfhearted support and quick abandonment of the Iraqi opposition in northern Iraq in 1995 and 1996. They, like everybody else in the Middle East, watched America's lame coup attempt launched from Jordan go completely awry. They watched the Israelis--whom the Iranians see as inextricably linked to America by culture and conspiracy (the unseen, global Jewish cabal that has America in its hands)--unilaterally withdraw from Lebanon in May 2000, abandoning their Lebanese allies to the tender mercies of Hezbollah. Ali Khamenei and Mohammad Khatami both made breathtaking, inspiring speeches about the Israeli retreat from Lebanon.

And they watched Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak's government absorb, without serious reprisal, hit after hit from Palestinian terrorists, some of whom, like the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, verge on being wholly owned subsidiaries of Tehran. The Iranians know that the Israelis know that the Palestinian Islamic Jihad is an appendage of the clerical regime, which has made the Israelis' "measured" reactions even more damning. The clerics repeatedly saw the Clinton and Bush administrations call upon the Israelis to exercise "restraint." Perhaps the most watched barometer of American nerve in the Middle East--Will Washington allow Israel to fight?--has indicated for years that America no longer has the loins to maintain its influence in the region.

The Americans and Europeans have for decades committed a cardinal strategic sin in de facto trying to separate Israel from the West, denying it the fraternity, association, and security guarantees that are natural, for example, among NATO members. Terrorism, like any covert action, is an acquired taste--a mental and physical reflex that must be exercised to stay fit and vibrant. By allowing Israel to bleed through terrorist attack--by failing to state clearly and unequivocally that the West does not recognize terrorism against Israelis as legitimate, and by not bringing Western arms to bear against Hezbollah and the PLO when they engaged in outrageous acts of terrorism--the West encouraged the Iranian clergy, among others, to view terrorism as a legitimate and successful means of statecraft. More important, Western neglect, the failure of Western Europe and the United States to threaten clerical Iran meaningfully, allowed Iran's terrorist apparatus in Lebanon--the Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Ministry of Intelligence--to stay in training.

Winston Churchill once remarked that for a certain number of British officers to be killed in combat each year on the Raj's Northwest Frontier would keep the ruling class vigilant and serious. The same can be said of Iran's role among the Lebanese Shiites of Hezbollah and the Palestinian radicals. The clerical regime in Iran has invested an enormous amount of its prestige--even its raison d' tre--in both Hezbollah and the Palestinians. The members of Hezbollah are truly the only faithful offspring of Iran's Islamic revolution. They are not, as some Lebanon-saturated journalists still like to say, just "a national liberation movement" (the Shiite Amal, not Hezbollah, properly deserve that title).

The Iranians have repeatedly gotten away with murder--in the Middle East, in Europe, and elsewhere--and learned well how "sophisticated" Westerners can waffle in response to terrorism. This perception extends to their efforts to obtain nuclear weapons and, no doubt, to their grand objective to use them as leverage to enhance their security and sphere of influence throughout the Middle East.