Last week, Manssor Arbabsiar pleaded guilty to plotting what U.S. officials have termed “a significant attack in the United States.” Attorney General Eric Holder called the Iranian-born American’s admission “a reminder of the exceptional efforts of our law enforcement and intelligence agencies in protecting America against terrorist attacks.” Yes, that’s quite right. Holder added that this outcome demonstrates that the U.S. will hold “accountable those who plan such actions.” No, that’s patently false.
Arbabsiar has admitted that he was working at the direction of the Quds Force — the most elite branch of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The IRGC reports directly to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Is there anyone who seriously believes that Khamenei, the IRGC, or the Quds Force will be held accountable? Is there anyone who seriously believes the U.S. government will even try?
Fecklessness in response to attacks on Americans is a bipartisan tradition going back well over a quarter century. For example, in 1973, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Black September faction assassinated the U.S. ambassador to Sudan, Cleo Noel, as well as Deputy Chief of Mission George Curtis Moore. As my colleague Lee Smith writes:
The State Department knew from the very outset of the attack that Yasser Arafat was personally directing the operation, but neither Nixon nor any other American president ever punished the PLO chairman, who lived to become a favored guest in the Clinton White House.
Ten years later, after the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut was bombed, killing 241 Marines, President Reagan vowed: “Those who directed this atrocity must be dealt justice, and they will be.” But justice was never dealt to Hezbollah — now the best-armed, deadliest, and most powerful faction in Lebanon — or to Iran’s rulers, on whose instructions Hezbollah carried out the slaughter.
In 1996, Egyptian cleric Omar Abdel-Rahman, the “Blind Sheikh,” was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. But his terrorist organization, al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, was in no way held accountable, and in 1997 it was responsible for the massacre of 58 foreign tourists in Luxor. Last year, after the fall of the Mubarak government, al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya established an Egyptian political party, and its current leader, Sheikh Rifa’ah Taha, was among those who organized the attack on the U.S. embassy in Cairo on the 9/11 anniversary — an attack that included the raising of an al-Qaeda flag above the compound.
Also in 1996, 19 American servicemen were killed at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. According to Louis Freeh, who was FBI director at the time, President Clinton took no actions — not against those responsible, and not against those who sent them. Clinton refused even to ask the Saudis to allow FBI agents to question suspects they were holding. (Freeh noted, however, that Clinton did ask Crown Prince Abdullah for a contribution to the Clinton Presidential Library.)
Immediately following the attacks of 9/11, President George W. Bush declared that the U.S. would no longer distinguish between terrorists and terrorist masters. He told a joint session of Congress: “From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.” But Bush never fully implemented that policy, and President Obama rejected it outright.
The killing of U.S. ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens along with three other Americans evoked this pledge from Vice President Joe Biden: “We will find and bring to justice the men who did this.” By now it should be clear that we are menaced not just by “the men” who carry out such attacks — but by the organizations, regimes, and ideologies behind them.
The plot for which Manssor Arbabsiar will go to jail was not authorized by some rogue faction beyond the control of Iran’s rulers. Rather, those rulers should be held responsible for their plan to explode a bomb in a restaurant in the capital city of the United States in order to assassinate the Saudi ambassador along with everyone else in the immediate vicinity. Once upon a time this would have been called what it is: an act of war.
Also last week, the U.S. Treasury Department attempted to call attention to the fact that Iran continues to give safe haven to senior al-Qaeda operatives — operatives who maintain a “core pipeline” that moves “funding and fighters” to Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere.
“We will continue targeting this crucial source of al-Qaeda’s funding and support, as well as highlight Iran’s ongoing complicity in this network’s operation,” said Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen. Three times in less than two years the Treasury has designated al-Qaeda operatives in Iran, according to Thomas Joscelyn, a colleague at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who keeps careful track of such things.
So here are a few conclusions that should, by now, be apparent: (1) Iran’s rulers collaborate with al-Qaeda, a terrorist organization with which the Obama administration says we are at war. (2) Iran’s rulers, the world’s leading sponsors of terrorism, do not hesitate to plot terrorism on American soil — confident they will pay no price. (3) Iran’s rulers are pursuing nuclear-weapons capability and, if they achieve that goal, they will become much bolder and more dangerous.
It’s time we grasped this, too: Swatting mosquitoes and shooting the occasional crocodile takes you only so far. At some point it becomes necessary to devise a strategy to drain the swamp.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.