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Drones Are Not Enough

Getting counterterrorism policy wrong.

Feb 6, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 20 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Like Khomeini, Khamenei hates America comprehensively. The United States is, simply and infinitely, “the enemy of God.” He has at times allowed his minions and his opponents to reject the United States with less vehemence—most famously after the election of Khatami in 1997 and the American triumph in Afghanistan in 2002—when internal and external events spooked him. But when the United States was the most forward-leaning during his rule—when Barack Obama first started sending not-so-secret engagement letters—the supreme leader told Washington to stick it. Shaytan-e mojassim, “Satan incarnate,” the phrase Khamenei hurled back at Obama after the president first extended his hand, contains a truth that the administration, and many other liberals and most realists, just won’t grasp: The more the president reaches out to Khamenei, the harder Washington tries to find a modus vivendi, the more the supreme leader will hate the president of the United States. (If Khamenei used voodoo dolls, Obama’s would be larger than Bush’s.) 

And it isn’t conspiracy that fuels the supreme leader’s loathing; it’s a keen understanding that America’s enrapturing wickedness is central to the Islamic Republic’s faith. Although Obama had nothing to do with the explosion of dissent on Tehran’s streets in the summer of 2009, the protesters used the president’s why-can’t-we-be-friends rhetoric, confirming the insidious danger of America’s new leader. American diplomacy towards Tehran, which has often been fairly active behind the scenes, has never been seen as more provocative than under Obama.

American liberals, who live to manage domestic affairs, like to believe that foreign affairs, too, can be handled rationally. Thus, Obama ratchets up the economic pressure on Tehran, assuming that in response, Khamenei the “pragmatist” will eventually change his behavior. Even though this scenario beggars the Iranian revolutionary imagination, it has one small chance for success: if the supreme leader knows that he cannot counter with violence. Violence—terrorism—is in the DNA of this regime. It’s how it deals with internal opposition; it’s regularly been part of Tehran’s foreign statecraft. 

Yet Obama’s inconsistencies signal the opposite. On the one hand, the president describes Iran’s nuclear program as “unacceptable” and has backed an ever-more-punishing sanctions regime. On the other hand, Obama has made it clear that he would prefer to avoid a military confrontation with Tehran even when the regime is caught planning a terrorist strike. Following in the footsteps of George W. Bush but with much more conviction, Obama has ignored Iran’s extensive aid to Iraqis and Afghans who specialize in killing American soldiers. 

Yet the president’s contradictions have been the most harmful—and for Tehran perhaps the most instructive—on the growing evidence of an al Qaeda-Iran alliance. Like the Bush administration, Obama’s people have not wanted to follow up on the 9/11 Commission Report, which depicted regular operational contact and likely training between Osama bin Laden’s men, Iran’s security services, and Hezbollah. Before and after 9/11, the clerical regime unquestionably abetted al Qaeda’s movement with laissez-passers. Since 2005, evidence has been mounting that the Islamic Republic has allowed al Qaeda to use Iran as a safe haven and an operational hub. In January 2009, the Treasury Department designated four members of al Qaeda who were “managing the terrorist organization from Iran.” All four of these operatives, one of whom was bin Laden’s son Saad, had supposedly been under “house arrest.” 

Then barely two months ago, in December 2011, the State Department and Treasury announced a $10 million bounty on the al Qaeda financier Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, better known as Yasin al-Suri, who, according to the U.S. government, has been operating in Iran with the assistance of the Iranian authorities since 2005. “Al-Suri’s network has served as a financial conduit, collecting funds from donors throughout the Gulf and moving those via Iran to al Qaeda’s leadership in Afghanistan and Iraq,” according to Treasury. “Al-Suri’s network also serves as the core pipeline for al Qaeda to funnel operatives and facilitators from the Middle East to Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

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