Various myths have long held America’s Mideast strategy. Among the most pernicious myths is the one that sharply divided Iran’s government from its terrorist proxies. Letting Tehran deny responsibility for its proxies’ nasty activities was the price we had to pay for grand bargaining with Iran’s sophisticated diplomats.
No more. This week the Trump administration began signaling that it will treat the two — the terrorist government and the terrorist proxies — as one and the same.
It was time. Over the weekend, four oil tankers, carrying the flags of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Norway, were bombed near the Strait of Hormuz, and on Tuesday drones attacked two Saudi oil-pumping stations.
US intelligence sources have fingered “Iran or its proxies” for Sunday’s Hormuz attacks. If so, it’s consistent with Tehran’s preferred tactic of using untraceable operatives to conduct black ops against US allies and interests.
From the deadly bombings of Jewish and Israeli targets in Argentina in the early 1990s, to the 1996 Khobar Tower operation that took the lives of 19 US air personnel, to the 2012 bombing of a tour bus carrying Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, the Tehran regime loves to murder its opponents without leaving Persian fingerprints at the scene of the crime.
It allowed the mullahs to appear like enlightened Persian philosophers, not men who treat terror as statecraft.
The Tuesday attack against Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, points to another aspect of Iran’s proxy terrorism: namely, destabilizing states with discontented minorities, especially if they share Iran’s Shiite faith. A Yemeni group, the Houthis, said earlier it targeted Saudi strategic assets, likely referring to the drone bombing of the pipeline.
The Houthis have overthrown the Yemeni government, throwing the country into a long, vicious civil war. At first only marginally bound to Tehran by similar religious beliefs, the Houthis are now guided, armed and financed by Iran.
Tehran has similarly cultivated warring factions around the Mideast. In addition to Yemen, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, charged with exporting the Islamic Revolution, sponsors militias in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Bahrain, the Gaza Strip, North Africa and beyond.
Hezbollah, the first success story in Iran’s influence-peddling by armed proxies, now reaches deep into the Mideast, Asia, Africa, even as far as Latin America.
Today Hezbollah, globally listed as a terror group, is the top political power in Lebanon. Yet America and Europe maintain the fiction, created during the George W. Bush era, that the Hezbollah-controlled Lebanese army is a partner in our war against terrorism. Similarly, since Obama’s days, US troops still fight ISIS alongside Iranian-controlled Syrian and Iraqi militias.
The Europeans and the US long allowed Iran to distance itself from its proxies’ dirty deeds. This was especially true after the nuclear deal was struck. Preserving the deal at all costs was paramount, so Iran’s deniability on dirty deeds was widely entertained.
That way, the supporters of rapprochement with Tehran could maintain the fiction that it would drop belligerence for the sake of ties with the West.
It never happened, and this week’s attacks came just as the US cautioned about possible Iranian military retaliation against America’s moves to tighten sanctions and designate the IRGC a terrorist organization. Unshackled from the nuclear deal, Trump administration officials seem intent on ending Iran’s proxy impunity.
The “era of deniable attacks is over,” Trump’s point man on Iran, Brian Hook, told Fox News this week, adding: “Tehran will be held accountable for the attacks of its proxies. If we’re attacked, we will respond with military force.”
Such statements represent a “course correction from past policy, which only occasionally, and mostly rhetorically, held Iran accountable to action of its proxies,” says Behnam Ben Taleblu of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.
It may be difficult to maintain that strategy at times, but America finally seems intent on recognizing the Persian puppet master pulling the string of many evil puppets. That’s progress.