1979 is a key date in the U.S. relations with the Middle East. It was the historical hinge upon which much of today’s Middle East conflicts rest. The Islamic Republic of Iran was established, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and the Islamic shrines in Saudi Arabia were attacked. The following year Saddam Hussein, after having seized full power in Iraq, invaded Iran.
In the decade that followed, Hezbollah was established, hostages from a variety of western nations were seized by Iranian-allied terrorists, and serial terrorism emerged as the preferred tool of statecraft of among others, Iran, Syria, North Korea, Libya, and the Soviet Union.
In 1981, Clare Sterling, in her book “The Terror Network,” echoed by Secretary of State Alexander Haig in Congressional testimony, laid out the threat we faced. In 1985, Uri Ra’anan of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy published “Hydra of Carnage” further laying out the terrorist threats the United States faced.
Understandably, America's attention was largely elsewhere, devoted to ending the Soviet Empire and the aggressive pursuit by Moscow of its objectives.
But even as the Reagan and Bush administrations heroically brought an end to the Cold War, an equally troublesome force was growing out of Tehran.
After the end of the Cold War, conventional wisdom was that it was the end of history. We were repeatedly told that no totalitarian power would threaten liberal democracy again. It certainly looked that way, but history has a way of not unfolding the way we wished it would.
As we know, no such anticipated peace emerged. The CIA and WTC were attacked in early 1993; then in 1996 the Khobar towers; then in 1998 our embassies in Africa followed by the USS Cole in 2000; and culminating in the 9-11 attacks in New York and Virginia, (and the first heroic counter action over Pennsylvania.) In fact, over the decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, major Islamic terror attacks increased four-fold to 44 compared to 10 the previous decade.
Fascinated with the persona of Osama bin Laden many U.S. analysts tended to associate terror with the leader of Al Qaeda, failing to understand that Al Qaeda itself was an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, (a group that should be placed on the list of official terrorist organizations), and that many terror attacks against the United States from 1979 to 2001 were perpetrated by Iran, not Al Qaeda. Recent commentary has correctly noted that Al Qaeda and its affiliates cover more geographic area now than in 2001.
However, it was easier to see in Al Qaeda as nothing more than an offshoot of the mujahideen we supported in the Afghan fight against the Soviets. A common narrative was that the mujahideen now switched to fighting the United States rather than the former Soviet Union. This narrative, of course, ignored the fact that one of the central fighters against the Soviets were the Northern Alliance. They were led at the time by Shah Massoud. But despite the assassination of Massoud shortly before 9-11, the Northern Alliance became our central ally in taking down the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
In his famous declaration of war against the United States published in 1996, Osama Bin Laden specifically laid out the motives for the 9-11 attacks. The United States, contrary to Islamic law, had stationed American troops in Saudi Arabia in preparation for liberating Kuwait. And this was to Al Qaeda’s leaders enough of a “legitimate grievance” to propel the attacks of 9-11.
But Al Qaeda was formed after the Soviets began to leave Afghanistan. Osama Bin Laden fled Afghanistan during the civil war that brought the Taliban to power, the Taliban itself largely a creation of the Pakistani ISI. Both were part of an Islamic mosaic throughout the Middle East seeking the overthrow of apostate Arab governments, the establishment of a new Islamic caliphate, and the destruction of the Jewish state of Israel.
American power was seen as supporting not only Israel but the various Arab governments seen as not sufficiently pious. And the Islamic Revolutionary Republic of Iran was simply the most prominent and most dangerous of jihadi forces as the Cold War came to an end.
In fact, a close reading of the 911 commission report revealed that Iran and Hezbollah had trained the 9-11 hijackers in Iran. Deliberately avoiding stamping their passports with entry or exit visas, Iran facilitated the hijackers to later obtain American visas through a program known as “Visa Express,” which facilitated their entrance to the United States from Saudi Arabia in 1999, 2000 and 2001.
Even with the death of Osama bin Laden, subsequent Islamic-based terror attacks rose quite dramatically to where in 2015-16 over 10,000 people were killed and wounded in Islamic terror attacks compared to under 3000 in 2001. Worldwide terrorist attacks attributed to Islamic organizations and states dramatically accelerated even though Al Qaeda and the Taliban were seriously degraded.
We did not connect Iran to the national security dots after 9-11 even as agents of Iran using Iraqi-based militias attacked over a thousand American soldiers in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan using IEDs strewn along roads on which US forces traveled. Many of these soldiers according to the US military perished.
Given this history, should not then American policy aim to remove the Mullahs from power in Iran? Unfortunately, that has not been the focus of American policy.
Instead, the past decade has been primarily aimed at curtailing (temporarily) Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons by capping the amount of nuclear fuel Iran can produce and to what level of enrichment.
Its regional and global ambitions, and its long record of attacking the United States, including its role in 9-11, were not the focus of the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action.
In fact, Politico revealed April 24, 2017, that the previous administration in a trade-off with Iran, actually “deep-sixed” at least 14 criminal investigations of Iranian efforts to smuggle nuclear weapons parts into Iran through a network, not unlike the nuclear smuggling Khan network in Pakistan, a network that included China.
Ironically, the 9-11 commission obliquely linked only one other country with the 9-11 attacks, and that was the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). Although the Commission noted there was no evidence of such involvement, they noted the existence of a classified congressional draft report alleging such KSA involvement that they made part of the record. The result of which was attention was deflected from the real threat in the Gulf which was Iran. (This in large part was why the JASTA legislation I referenced in Part 1 of this essay was drafted and why its focus remained on the KSA and not Iran.)
One could argue that given the relative threats from Iran, stopping its pursuit of nuclear weapons should be of the highest priority. However, the American effort to curtail the Iran nuke program (but not its missiles or terrorist support or human rights atrocities) went through several phases not all of which were helpful to America’s security. Thus concentrating largely on that objective was not necessarily beneficial to the U.S. as many have claimed.
The first phase involved the U.S. intelligence community almost universally dismissing the idea that the Iranians were seeking or had the capability to produce a nuclear weapon anytime in the immediate future.
Leading to the situation where a key American ally, Israel, would warn that Iran was, for example, a “year” away from producing fuel sufficient for a nuclear weapon. Some within the intelligence community through leaks to the media would subsequently dismiss such concerns. They would claim there was no proof that Iran was seeking such weapons. At worst we were told Iran was probably a decade away from any such capability but that for certain the Iranian leadership had “made no decision to build a nuclear weapon.”
The second phase involved a 2007 national intelligence estimate. The US intelligence community said Iran had in 2003 halted work on the design of nuclear warheads. The accompany press release implied Iran had stopped all its nuclear work, a narrative picked up by many analysts the NIE authors did not knock down.
In this way a widespread idea was adopted that assumed Iran was no longer pursuing nuclear weapons or their components, even though the reality was Iran was accelerating its capability of producing nuclear weapons fuel, irrespective of whether or not it had or had not stopped work on warhead designs.
The 2007 Iran NIE also had the unfortunate effect of largely taking Iran’s nuclear threat off the national security table as a matter for serious debate. The 2008 Presidential campaign was largely devoid of concern over Iran except for a September debate over whether the candidates would meet with the Iranian leaders or what tools of statecraft were or were not on the table. Understandably, the key issues were how to end our involvement in the “bad war” in Iraq and at best finish the "good" war in Afghanistan.
From 2009-15, in phase three, we spent our time inexplicably trying to seek Iranian cooperation on its nuclear program through policies that have often been described as appeasement. We gave no support to the Iranian Green Revolution. We took down the planned missile defenses in Europe in the Czech Republic and Poland designed to defend against Iran missiles. We disagreed with the Israelis over whether Iran was or was not a year, six months or a decade away from a nuclear capability. Moreover, we were largely silent about Iranian IED attacks on USA servicemen and women in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Part of the narrative about Iran was also that we might have deserved at least in part Iran’s hostility. For example, Stephen Kinzer’s “All the Shahs Men” was highly popular. It wove a tapestry of supposed bad American actions against Iran, especially support for an alleged “coup” in 1953 against then Prime Minister Mossaddegh. Kinzer claims the “coup” led eventually to the fall of the Shah, the rise of Islamic jihad in Iran and the terrorism that led to the attacks of 9-11.
Such a narrative was unfortunate, as it deflected attention from Iranian ambitions, Iranian military power and the ongoing Iranian attacks on America's soldiers. It also, unfortunately, fed into one false narrative that the 9-11 attacks specifically and terror attacks, in general, were “America’s chickens coming home to roost” where America was at least partially at fault, and the terrorists had at least some legitimate grievances.
On top of which the administration often fought or tried to water down Congressional attempts to heighten economic sanctions on Iran, arguing more conciliation, dialogue and what was described as soft power would get things done as opposed to harsh actions, tougher sanctions and “hard power.”
There was agreement on the existing sanctions regime as the best way forward to pressure Iran to change its rogue behavior.
However, the idea that sanctions necessarily led to the JCPOA has another twist to it.
Could it be the Iranians used our perception of the economic damage sanctions were doing to Iran to convince us that is why the Iranian government came to the table?
What if instead, the Iranians were engaging in a big of geostrategic jiu-jitsu? Iran let us assume the country was on its back economically—but they used such a perception to get us to the table, to support the removal of sanctions, the unfreezing of funds and in turn get international support for its overt nuclear program, while continuing to leave largely untouched its terrorist enterprises and growing military power, especially its ballistic missiles.
In the final analysis, the JCPOA curtailment of its nuclear enrichment capabilities is only temporary and will eventually expire.
That end game could leave Iran as an emerging nuclear weapons power. Only a new American Middle East Security Policy will prevent this outcome.