Speaking publicly about the role of Iran in Afghanistan--which is substantial, and about which we have considerable information--seems to be taboo for our current leaders. This is neither new nor surprising. Iranians, and Iranian-trained terrorists from organizations such as Hezbollah, have been killing Americans for years. The Bush administration, for example, had similar information about Iran's role in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and top officials did their best to suppress it. According to reporter Bob Woodward, a top State Department official knew that Iran had committed "acts of war" against our troops in Iraq and kept that information from the president, fearing a forceful response.
Nonetheless, we learned a lot about Iranian activities against our troops, both because the basic elements in the lethal roadside bombs were traced to Iran, and because Iranian military officers (from the Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force) were captured in Iraq and provided details of the mullahs' training, arming, funding, and protection of insurgents sent to kill Americans and other coalition forces.
This information was not limited to Iraq. During the initial assault against the Taliban following 9/11, Special Forces found Iranian assassins operating against us, and by late 2007, there was abundant public testimony about Iran's activities in Afghanistan.
Former White House counter--terrorism official Richard Clarke pointed out in the summer of 2007 that the Taliban were using heavy arms, C-4 explosives, and advanced roadside bombs. "It is inconceivable," he said, "that it is anyone other than the Iranian government that's doing it."
Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said at the same time, "There's irrefutable evidence the Iranians are now doing this. It's certainly coming from the government of Iran."
General Dan McNeill, the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, announced that "the Iranian military was involved in a shipment of sophisticated explosive devices intercepted [in September 2007] . . . in western Afghanistan."
The Iranians' attacks on American forces were nothing new; they were only the most recent in a war that began in 1979 with the Islamic Revolution's seizure of power in Tehran. Soon thereafter, Iran raced to the top of our list of state sponsors of terror, and it is still there today. Those well-known chants of "Death to America!" are not slogans for domestic consumption; they describe the central thrust of Iranian foreign policy. The mullahs are now part of a global anti-American alliance that includes Syria, Russia, Eritrea, China, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Bolivia, along with terrorist organizations from Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad to the Colombian FARC.
Therefore, in Afghanistan as in Iraq, no matter how well we do, no matter how many high-level targets we eliminate, no matter how many cities, towns, and villages we secure, unless we defeat Iran we will always be designing yet another counterinsurgency strategy in yet another place. We are in a big war, and Iran is at the heart of the enemy army. Alas, no American president since the Islamic Revolution has been willing to face the consequences of Iran's war against America. Most of the time, our leaders have refused to accept the fact that Iran will do everything possible to dominate or destroy us. Instead of trying to defeat the mullahs, every president has sought rapprochement, just as Obama is doing now.
Another element of continuity between Obama and his predecessors is the refusal to support the Iranian regime's domestic opponents. For nearly 30 years, American experts and policymakers have dismissed the idea that a democratic revolution in Iran is possible and have done virtually nothing to encourage one or to support Iranians who risk their lives to bring one about.
In recent months, however, it has become clear to all but the most cynical observers that a large and disciplined opposition to the regime exists. Late in Ramadan, two enormously significant events showed the dimensions of the challenge to the regime. First, at least 15 leading Shiite ayatollahs, from both Iran and Iraq (including such revered figures as the Ayatollah Montazeri in Qom and Ayatollah Sistani in Najaf) denounced the leadership of Supreme Leader Khamenei, thereby depriving him of the religious authority that provides the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. Other leading clerics have followed suit.
Second, the anti-regime demonstrations on "Quds Day" in late September were so massive and so disciplined that the regime's security forces were unable to respond with their usual mayhem. Indeed, they did not fire a single shot against the demonstrators in Tehran. As an Iranian friend put it, "Now they know the way it is." In recent demonstrations on university campuses around the country, security forces stayed away.
Nothing would so greatly help us in the big war--most definitely including Afghanistan--as the fall of the regime in Tehran, which is now a distinct possibility. The opposition leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, have promised to cut off Iranian support for terrorism and open all the nuclear facilities to international inspection, but our leaders don't want to have anything to do with them. Indeed, in an obvious appeasement message to the tyrants, a U.S. government grant was recently terminated to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center in New Haven. To date, not a single Western government has made contact with the leaders of the opposition, let alone provided help.
Most of the needed support is political: calls by top American officials for the release of political prisoners, equal rights for women (for which Mousavi's wife has been a charismatic advocate), and freedom of speech, press, and assembly. The president could earn his Nobel Peace Prize by condemning the regime's slaughter of its own people, by instructing the timorous broadcasters at VOA's Farsi Service to report more vigorously on Iranian actions, by helping the independent Iranian-American and European radio and TV stations beat the regime's jamming, and by supporting software to evade the mullahs' "filtering" of the Internet and cellular phone calls. Finally, Obama could suggest to his friends in the labor movement that it is long past time to build a strike fund for Iranian workers.
None of this is very hard, and it's a lot easier than trying to talk the mullahs out of their nukes or facing a nuclear Iran when we fail. It's strategically sound and morally right. And it will change the world for the better.
<π><ι>Michael Ledeen is Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author of Accomplice to Evil: Iran and the War Against the West, published this week by St. Martin's Press.