October 14, 2016 | The Weekly Standard
Ayatollah Khamenei, the “Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution,” commemorated the end of Ramadan with a lengthy anti-American, antisemitic screed. Khamenei has repeatedly accused the West and Israel, rather than Muslim-majority forces, of sponsoring violence in the region, and the title of his sermon, “American, Zionist and English Intelligence Services Created Terrorism in the Islamic World,” reinforced his favorite talking point. Khamenei blamed these actors for a string of high-profile terrorist attacks during Ramadan—in Iraq, Istanbul, Bangladesh, Yemen, and elsewhere—all of which were carried out by the Islamic State and its followers. “This is the work of intelligence services—particularly the dangerous hands of American, Zionist, and English intelligence services—which have cultivated terrorism,” Khamenei said July 6. “It is they who have created terrorism in the world of Islam.”
Just over one week later, on July 14, Secretary of State John Kerry celebrated the first anniversary of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. The agreement “guaranteed to the world that Iran would not be pursuing a nuclear weapon,” Kerry declared. The administration believes, Kerry added, “that the door that has been opened as a consequence of this dialogue gives us an opportunity” to discuss various “continuing issues” with Iran, including “in Syria or Yemen, on terrorism.”
The two views could not be more diametrically opposed. Khamenei claims the United States and its allies are responsible for terrorism throughout the Muslim-majority world, an absurd claim to American ears. Kerry, meanwhile, believes he can now engage in constructive dialogue with the Iranians about their own ongoing sponsorship of terrorism.
Clearly, there is a disconnect.
It is no secret that President Obama and other top administration officials hoped the nuclear accord with Iran would lead to a new era of improved relations between the two foes. At times, Obama even entertained the idea that the Iranian regime could evolve beyond its aggressively anti-American origins. Take off the rose-colored glasses Kerry donned in Paris, however, and a stark reality comes into focus. In the year since the United States and several other countries agreed to the JCPOA, the Iranian regime's terrorist tentacles have grown longer and thicker. Iran remains the world's foremost state sponsor of terrorism, backing anti-American, anti-Israeli, and anti-Sunni-Muslim forces throughout the world. In every country where Iran and its paramilitary agents operate, American interests are damaged, not advanced, by the supreme leader's Islamic Revolution. And the Iranian regime continues to harbor some of al Qaeda's most dangerous terrorists.
Consider what Kerry's own State Department had to say this spring. “Iran continued its terrorist-related activity in 2015, including support for Hizballah, Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza, and various groups in Iraq and throughout the Middle East,” reads Foggy Bottom's Country Reports on Terrorism 2015, released June 2. Iran even “increased” its terrorist activities in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. government has designated Iran a state sponsor of terror every year since 1984. The State Department's bottom line: Iran's behavior in 2015, the year of the landmark nuclear deal, was no better than that of the previous three decades.
A brief overview of several key issues demonstrates just how unhelpful Iran's ongoing anti-American revolution still is.
Iraq. Iranian-backed forces frequently battle the Islamic State in Iraq, but the net effect of Iran's growing presence is negative. “Look, we have challenges with Iran as everybody knows and we are working on those challenges,” Kerry said at the Aspen Ideas Festival on June 28. “But I can tell you that Iran in Iraq has been in certain ways helpful, and they clearly are focused on ISIL-Daesh, and so we have a common interest, actually.”
In fact, just weeks earlier, the State Department itself recognized why Iran's leadership position on the ground in Iraq is so harmful. In 2015, a summary in Country Reports on Terrorism notes, Iran “increased its arming and funding of Iraqi Shia terrorist groups in an effort to reverse ISIL gains in Iraq.” The report continues: “Many of these groups . . . have exacerbated sectarian tensions in Iraq and have committed serious human rights abuses against primarily Sunni civilians.”
It is well-established that Shiite sectarianism, actively promoted by Iran, is one of the key drivers of Sunni extremism. Both sides feed off one another in a vicious cycle of hate. While the Islamic State has lost ground to the Iraqi government and Iranian proxies, the environment that created ripe conditions for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's jihadists in 2014, when they swept through Mosul and other cities, isn't less toxic today; if anything, the situation is just as bad.
As the Islamic State's territorial losses continue to mount, the group has reverted to insurgency-style tactics. Sunni grievances exacerbated by Iran help to sustain this insurrection indefinitely, driving more civilians into its ranks out of desperation. It is worth remembering that America achieved its greatest success in Iraq during the height of the “surge” ordered by President George W. Bush. Both Sunni and Shiite extremists were targeted by U.S.-led coalition forces in 2007 and 2008, as a key element of the surge strategy was to reduce sectarianism on both sides in order to stabilize the country.
The Obama administration's policy in Iraq has substituted American boots with Iranian ones. But Iran's gains mean that one anti-American actor is simply replacing another. Some of the key Iranian proxies inside Iraq have been designated terrorist organizations by the U.S. government, in part, because they are inherently opposed to the West.
Iran “increased” its assistance to these groups in 2015, according to the State Department's report. One of these Iranian fronts is Kata'ib Hezbollah (KH), which was added to the list of foreign terrorist organizations in 2009. “In 2007,” a chapter in Country Reports on Terrorism reads, “KH gained notoriety from attacks against U.S. and Coalition Forces in Iraq.” KH, which has “an anti-Western outlook,” killed five American soldiers during rocket attacks on Baghdad in 2011. KH is by no means the only Iranian proxy that has gained power inside Iraq over the past year.
Syria. The Iranian regime has played a pivotal role in one of history's worst human rights catastrophes. Iran sees Bashar al-Assad's regime as “a pillar in its 'resistance' front,” according to the State Department, and it has been willing to do just about anything to keep Assad in power. In addition to supporting Hezbollah in Syria, Iran “continued to provide arms, financing, training, and the facilitation of primarily Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani Shia fighters to support the Assad regime's brutal crackdown that has resulted in the deaths of more than 250,000 people in Syria,” the department says. Last year, Iran “more openly acknowledged the deaths of Iranian personnel in Syria . . . including several senior commanders, and increased Iranian troop levels, while continuing to claim publicly that Iranian forces had only deployed in an advisory role.” As in Iraq, Iran's proxies have expanded their presence in Syria since the JCPOA was signed.
Sometimes the State Department's omissions are glaring. Such is the case with what Foggy Bottom didn't say in its latest report about Iran's support for Houthi rebels in Yemen, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and al Qaeda in South Asia. In each place, Iran's actions have threatened the interests of the United States and its allies.
Yemen. Iran has sponsored the Houthi rebellion for years. In Country Reports for Terrorism 2013, for example, the State Department noted: “Iran actively supports members of the Houthi movement, including activities intended to build military capabilities, which could pose a greater threat to security and stability in Yemen and the surrounding region.” Asked why similar language was not included in June's report for 2015, acting coordinator for counterterrorism Justin Siberell responded: “There's a serious concern about Iran's activities in Yemen, yes.”
The “concern” is that an Iranian-backed insurgency overthrew the Yemeni government, a duplicitous but key ally in the fight against terrorism, in late 2014 and early 2015. President Obama has touted the U.S. counterterrorism mission in Yemen as “successful” because it relied heavily on that same government. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula seized much of southern Yemen following the Houthi coup. It slithered away when an Arab-led coalition invaded the country this year but is well positioned for a comeback.
Afghanistan. In papers past, such as Country Reports on Terrorism 2012, the State Department explicitly recognized Iran's arming and training of Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. For some reason, this relationship was excised from the report for 2013 and has not been restored since. There are good reasons to suspect that this unholy alliance, which began in late 2001, has continued to the present. In June 2015, for instance, the Wall Street Journal reported that Iran had even “increased its supply of weapons, ammunition and funding to the Taliban.”
In May, the United States killed the Taliban's top leader, Mullah Mansour, as he crossed the border from Iran into Pakistan. It is difficult to fathom how Iranian authorities could have been unaware of his presence. Mansour was one of the most-wanted terrorists on the planet and closely allied with al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri. Indeed, eastern Iran, including the city of Zahedan, has long been a key safe haven for both the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda. Beginning in July 2011, the Treasury and State Departments issued a series of designations and other statements highlighting the Iranian regime's “agreement” with al Qaeda. Language pointing to the formerly secret deal was edited in a misleading fashion in State's Country Reports on Terrorismthe past two years. In 2013, the report noted that Iran “allowed” key al Qaeda facilitators to “operate a core facilitation pipeline through Iran.” The last two reports, including the one just published in June, say that Iran “previously allowed AQ facilitators to operate a core facilitation pipeline through Iran since at least 2009, enabling AQ to move funds and fighters to South Asia and Syria.” The implication is that Iran's agreement with al Qaeda is a thing of the past.
The Obama administration has not explicitly said that is the case, however. Just this past week, the Treasury Department designated three al Qaeda leaders who are based in Iran. One of them, Faisal Jassim Mohammed al-Amri al-Khalidi (known as Hamzah al-Khalidi), was identified in Osama bin Laden's files as part of a “new generation” of jihadist talent. Treasury reported that Khalidi is al Qaeda's “Military Commission Chief.” That is, Khalidi is the equivalent of al Qaeda's defense minister. And he is in Iran.
As in past years, Country Reports on Terrorism 2015 includes this revealing line: “Iran remained unwilling to bring to justice senior al-Qa'ida (AQ) members it continued to detain and refused to publicly identify the members in its custody.” But that is an understatement—some of al Qaeda's most senior leaders are also operating inside Iran today, safe from the American drone campaign.
Iran's anti-American revolution continues. The Obama administration often talks about Iran as if it were a traditional Westphalian nation-state. But as the brief synopses above show, it is anything but. The Iranian regime has worked to spread its “Islamic Revolution” since 1979, and it now has more influence in more countries than ever. Lebanon was one of the first nations to be victimized by Iran's aggressive paramilitary campaign, and today countries such as Bahrain are attempting to fend off Iran's imperialistic ambitions.
“Nobody pretends that some of the challenges we have with Iran have somehow been wiped away,” Secretary Kerry conceded during his remarks on the July 14 anniversary. But he believes the JCPOA has made it possible for the United States and Iran to solve some of these “issues” peacefully. He gave the example of “our sailors who stumbled into Iranian waters and within 24 hours we were able to get them out.” Kerry claimed: “That could not have happened prior to this agreement having taken place.”
Kerry didn't mention that Ayatollah Khamenei reveled in the humiliation of America's servicemen. He praised the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the regime's chief instrument of terror, for capturing the sailors, calling the operation “God's Deed.” Kerry believes that a door “has been opened” to better diplomacy between the United States and Iran, but the supreme leader speaks more ominously. When Khamenei blamed “American, Zionist, and English intelligence services” for terrorism in his sermon marking the end of Ramadan, he added, “This is a crime which will not be forgotten.”
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.