Two weeks ago the Treasury Department sanctioned a senior al Qaeda official, Olimzhon Adkhamovich Sadikov, also known as Jafar al-Uzbeki, for facilitating the flow of foreign fighters into Syria. The Levant appears to be ground zero in a struggle between al Qaeda and an Iranian-led axis of terror in a conflict now spreading from the Iraqi desert to the Lebanese coast. The Obama administration believes that in this contest for regional dominance, there are two clear sides and that it is al Qaeda, and not Iran, that constitutes the greatest threat to U.S. national security. Thus the Obama administration’s reluctance to act against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus, lest this give al Qaeda sway in Syria. However, here’s a fact that should give the administration cause to rethink its assessment: Al Qaeda’s Uzbeki is operating out of Iran, with the approval of Iranian authorities.

From Iran’s perspective, backing Uzbeki and his al Qaeda fighters against Assad and Hezbollah and even against its own Revolutionary Guard puts another piece into play on the chessboard. It’s an additional weapon in Tehran’s arsenal. As the 9/11 Commission Report made clear, the Islamic Republic has frequently worked with al Qaeda when it suits Iranian interests. Similarly, Assad, whose forces now battle a resistance that includes al Qaeda fighters, turned Damascus international airport into a transit hub for al Qaeda fighters entering Iraq in the mid-2000s to kill American troops. He also has a long history of using and manipulating Sunni jihadists.

This latest designation comes at a pivotal time for the administration’s regional policy. The White House’s chief strategic goal in the Middle East is to protect the interim nuclear weapons agreement with Tehran in the hope of creating, as Obama told the New Yorker last month, a new geopolitical equilibrium that balances Iran against Saudi Arabia. To get there, Obama needs to keep the Iranians at the negotiating table, not an easy trick given the regime’s volatile, even paranoid, nature.

Obama’s judgment of the clerical regime’s psychology has dictated policy since he first came to the White House. The administration refused to support the Green movement that took to the streets in the wake of Iran’s likely fraudulent June 2009 elections for fear of driving the regime from the negotiating table. Obama ignored the advice of officials who wanted to arm the Syrian rebels and avoided any serious efforts to topple Assad because he believed that this, too, would alienate the Iranians. He resisted Congress’s push to impose sanctions on Iran and has now provided sanctions relief for the same reason—he doesn’t want to get the mullahs mad and risk losing his negotiating partner.

Iran, the White House insists, is not the problem. It can be managed through regular diplomatic and political means—engagement, deterrence, etc. But al Qaeda, a non-state actor, making war from Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, is another animal altogether. As Director of National Intelligence James Clapper explained in his Senate testimony last month, the administration believes that al Qaeda represents the greatest threat to U.S. national security. According to Clapper, one al Qaeda affiliate in Syria that the administration has designated, Jabhat al-Nusra, even has plans to attack the United States. Unfortunately for the White House, it turns out that Nusra is funded and manned by the Iranian-based al Qaeda network. That is, Obama has tied America’s position in the Middle East to partnering with Iran, which itself has partnered with actors the White House deems the main threat to U.S. national security.

Nonetheless, the White House continues to see the regional conflict simplistically. As Obama puts it, what we’re watching unfold is a sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites in which the United States should avoid taking sides. This is also Iran’s version of the war, promulgated in part to keep the White House on the sidelines. It’s a multipurpose public diplomacy campaign intended also to galvanize Iran’s Shia base across the region and destabilize Sunni-majority regimes. Sectarianism is a significant factor in Middle East conflicts, but the fundamental fact is that Iran is a -revolutionary regime. It means to overturn the regional status quo, the American-backed order of the Middle East, and sideline the United States once and for all. In this effort, al Qaeda, along with Hezbollah and various other Iranian-backed terrorist organizations, can all be useful to Tehran.

For five years now, traditional American allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia have told the White House that Iran is the problem. You might think, with its latest terror designation, the administration might come to that same view. But the administration is reluctant to see the implications of what it has just done. The fact is, it’s long past time to move against Tehran on all fronts. Our key struggle in the Middle East is with the Iranian revolutionary regime that supports Sunni as well as Shiite terrorism.

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