Look back in anger

Have the mullahs of Iran given up their war against the United States for one minute since they came to power in the revolution of 1979? Is there any reason to think they might do so in deference to Barack Obama? Or is Obama signing us on to Iran’s war? Eli Lake takes a look at the state of play in a Bloomberg column that usefully “Iran’s peace letter from a poison pen”:

Iran has had an opportunistic relationship with al-Qaeda over the years, despite the whole apostasy problem. A year ago, the Treasury Department laid a lot of this out in a designation about al-Qaeda’s network in Iran. Terrorist operatives based in Mashhad, near Iran’s border with Afghanistan, were allowed to facilitate the transfer of al-Qaeda fighters from Pakistan to Syria through Iranian territory. After 9/11, Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, cut a deal with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps to allow family members to live in Iran while they moved from Afghanistan to Pakistan. Iran was also a key base in the last decade for al-Qaeda operatives such as Saif al-Adel, who was kept under a house arrest so loose he was able to write a semi-regular Internet column and help plan al-Qaeda’s war against the Iraqi government.

OK, opportunistic relationships can change. FDR and Stalin were allies against the Nazis, but after the Third Reich collapsed, the U.S. and the Soviet Union fought a cold war. Why can’t Iran and America be new allies in a war against the Islamic State? In many ways they already are.

The problem is: Iran really loves terrorism. Since 1979, it has used terrorism as a tool of statecraft like no other nation. In his testimony Thursday before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Nick Rasmussen, the head of the National Counterterrorism Center, said Iran and Hezbollah “remain committed to conducting terrorist activities worldwide and we are concerned their activities could either endanger or target U.S. and other Western interests.”

Iran’s leaders have been implicated in terrorist attacks in South America, Europe and the Middle East. The Justice Department in 2011 accused Iran of attempting to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington at a popular Georgetown restaurant, Cafe Milano. For the Islamic Republic to give up its predilection for terror would require a cultural revolution inside its defense establishment. What would the Quds Force be without car bombers and kidnapping?

Some might argue that the 2013 election of President Hassan Rouhani, a supposed reformer, signifies just this kind of change. But there is little evidence he is opening up Iranian society. State executions of gays and arrests of dissidents continue. Even though Rouhani tweeted in 2013 a Jewish New Year message to his followers on Twitter, the regime remains steeped in ugly anti-Semitism. In response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris last month, a cultural center in Iran with close ties to the regime announced a Holocaust cartoon contest. Despite Rouhani’s campaign promises, the leaders of the country’s green movement, the people who took to the streets to protest the 2009 elections, remain under house arrest or brutal detention in the country’s prisons. If Iran is unwilling to stop terrorizing its own people, why should anyone think it will stop terrorizing the citizens of its historic enemies?

And this gets to the most important argument as to why an alliance with Iran is a recipe for more war. Iran has been a partner of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as his troops continue to massacre his own people, causing a death toll conservatively estimated to be north of 129,000. In Yemen, Iran-supported Houthi rebels drove the Obama administration this week to shutter its embassy and CIA station in Sana’a, setting back a crucial war against al-Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate. Iran-supported militias in Iraq threaten the Sunni Arab population, driving many potential Sunni allies into the arms of the terrorists. Iran’s participation in a coalition against Islamic State forces, while seemingly helpful, threatens to turn a fight against a terrorist group into a bloody, regional sectarian war.

It’s hard to know exactly what kind of deal, if any, will emerge from Iran’s nuclear negotiations in Geneva with the U.S. and other great powers. But if Obama believes he can purchase Iranian counter-terrorism cooperation with concessions on its nuclear program, he is paying Iran twice and getting very little in return.

Lakes’s column is full of links and the whole thing is here.

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