February 24, 2010 | Forbes.com

Iran’s Global Bedfellows

If you listen to U.S. officialdom, Iran is a pariah, cast out by the world community for its sanctions-violating, nuclear-wannabe ways. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has just warned Latin American nations that in choosing to “flirt with Iran,” they should “think twice.” Last month, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told the press that Iran is “choosing to isolate itself.”

But is Iran really isolated? Fresh from a meeting in Tehran with the head of the terrorist group Hamas, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is free to rub shoulders at the United Nations climate conference in Copenhagen with a UN summit lineup that for the second time in four months includes President Barack Obama.

To list just a few highlights of Ahmadinejad’s other interactions in recent times: Since Iran’s June election, angrily and repeatedly protested by huge numbers of Iranians, Ahmadinejad has posed alongside Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at a regional security summit in the Urals, met with the president of Turkey, hosted the Emir of Qatar, dropped in on The Gambia and made plans to visit Turkmenistan. Last month he made the latest in a series of swings over the past five years through Latin America. There he dropped by Bolivia, Brazil and Venezuela. In Brazil he attended the signing of 13 Iranian-Brazilian cooperation agreements, in areas ranging from banking to technology to scholarships to the lifting of visa requirements. In Venezuela, he had a chance to follow up with his despotic chum, President Hugo Chavez, with whom he declared four months ago–during one of Chavez’s many visits to Iran–joint plans to set up an Iranian-Venezuelan “nuclear village.”

So busy has the Iranian president’s office been that even Ahmadinejad’s wife–who usually stays under wraps–took the UN stage in November, speaking at a summit of the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome.

More broadly, while the Obama administration has been reaching out to Iran, the Iranian regime has continued its own outreach around the globe. In recent months this has run the gamut from multibillion-dollar deals for Chinese investment in Iranian oil refineries, to plans to run a bank and assemble Iranian cars in the despotic, weapons-mongering state of Belarus–as well as build an amusement park in the Belarusian capital of Minsk.

The most urgent danger behind all this activity is of course Iran’s nuclear program, flush with thousands of centrifuges enriching uranium in tandem with missile development–such as the long-range rocket Iran tested this week–capable of striking Israel and parts of Europe. According to a scoop this week in The Times of London–yet to be fully verified–Iran’s nuclear program has progressed to the point of working on detonators.

Already, simply working with conventional weapons, perseverance and ruthless hostility toward the free world, Iran’s regime has been spreading huge mischief for years–from the 1983 bombings in Beirut to the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Argentina to a meddling hand in murderous attacks clearly aimed at fueling conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Beyond its immediate neighbors, Tehran extends and amplifies its reach through a mix of diplomacy, business and terrorist groups such as Hezbollah (which infests Lebanon) and Hamas (which controls Gaza). A slew of cases in U.S. courts have detailed activities by these same terrorist groups inside the U.S. itself, involved in everything from terrorist broadcasting to fund-raising to nuclear procurement to technology transfers. Just last month, U.S. authorities in a sting operation arrested a Lebanese man who came to Philadelphia trying to buy 10,000 automatic weapons plus antiaircraft missiles. In court documents, federal prosecutors say he wanted to ship this munitions bonanza to Lebanon, by way of Syria or Iran, for “the benefit” of Hezbollah.

Over the past year, law enforcement authorities in New York, both federal and state, have been trying to roll up Iranian schemes designed to circumvent sanctions. The investigations have delved into billions in funds shifted illegally through the U.S. banking system, a China-based procurement network for materials used in Iran’s missile and nuclear programs, and the U.S.-based Alavi Foundation, which federal prosecutors allege has been a front for the Iranian regime, financed by income from a Fifth Avenue office tower and guided by Iran’s ambassadors to the UN. What else is going on?

Iran’s setup follows a classic pattern of tyranny. At home, the regime is rotten at the core, afraid of the anger of its own people, who despite their country’s immense oil wealth average a meager per capita gross domestic product of less than $1,100 per year, according to the World Bank. Meanwhile, the regime tries to keep itself afloat by expanding its influence and power abroad, positioning itself as a go-to country for enemies of the free world.

One of Israel’s former ambassadors to the UN, Dore Gold, accurately summarizes the problem in his new book, The Rise of Nuclear Iran. Gold writes that since Iran’s Islamic revolution 30 years ago, “Iran has not acted like the typical state, carefully calibrating its national interests, but rather as the vanguard of a revolutionary movement.” Gold quotes from the Islamic Republic’s constitution, which calls openly for “continuation of the Revolution at home and abroad.”

In recent years, Iranian interests have wound themselves into everything from resources for the Indonesian fuel industry, to Ghanaian banking, to irrigation and oil refining in Sri Lanka, to initiatives by Iran’s Ministry of Agricultural Jihad (yes, that’s the name) for projects across much of Africa. Add to this Iran’s membership in OPEC and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, as well as its busy dance card at the UN and continuing business with Europe, Russia and China.

What has the U.S. been doing? Treasury has been working overtime, chasing Iranian proliferators, launderers and fronts, adding to a long list that by now includes everything from major Iranian banks to travel agencies in Caracas. On Tuesday the House of Representatives passed a resolution calling for sanctions on companies helping to supply Iran with imported gasoline. If that is going to happen, it seems there is still some distance to go before the Senate and White House sign on. If isolation is to be President Obama’s instrument of choice for stopping Iran’s drive to become a nuclear-fueled global force for tyranny and terror, much more must be done, and now.

Claudia Rosett, a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column on foreign affairs for Forbes.

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