Iran is feeling pretty confident these days. The Americans are leaving Afghanistan and leaving Iraq, while showing just how far they’re not willing to go in Libya. A handful of former enemies in the Sunni Arab world — regimes that for decades acted as a pro-U.S. counterweight to Iran’s regional ambitions — have fallen in the wake of the Middle East’s democratic uprising. Others Gulf states with significant Shiite populations, such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, seem a little shaky. Tehran, meanwhile, rockets ahead.
Literally. Last week, the U.K. foreign minister announced that Iran had tested missiles and rockets that can “deliver a nuclear payload.” The recipients of that delivery, by the way, would be Israel and Europe. It was a not-so-subtle message to the ever-feckless international community: We’re going to get a nuclear weapon. Your sanctions have not worked. There’s nothing you can — or will — do about it.
The White House’s response to the tests? Silence.
Sound (or no sound, as it were) familiar? Flashback to 2009: The Green Revolution sweeps the streets of Tehran. Ahmadinejad and his thugs brutally crack down on protesters of Ahmadinejad’s contested electoral victory. The White House decides to keep quiet. The same pattern unfolded following the democratic revolutions of this past season.
It’s not just “leading from behind,” as one of Obama’s advisers memorably described his leadership style, but speaking from the rear. The result? Tehran survived its brush with democracy, further emboldening the regime. Now they see the Arab Spring as another great opportunity. “[Iran] didn’t create the Arab Spring or start it, but they are clearly trying to exploit it wherever they can,” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has observed.
That’s playing out in a number of ways, all harmful to the U.S. In Egypt, Iranian warships were allowed to pass through the Suez Canal en route to Iran’s close ally Syria for “training.” It was the first time Iranian warships were allowed passage in the Suez since the 1979 Iranian revolution. Military officials attribute the recent spike in violence in Iraq — June was the deadliest month for U.S. soldiers since 2008 — not to al-Qaeda, but Shiite extremists linked to Iran. After Obama’s Afghanistan speech, Ahmadinejad invited president Hamid Karzai over from Kabul for a meeting. Then Karzai broke bread with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Iran’s backing has given Syria a bit of extra swagger in its brazen repression of the (mostly) Sunni protesters taking to the streets there. The Revolutionary Guards are aiding Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s violent crackdown. It’s been horrific — there’s a viral YouTube video of a 13-year-old boy whose body was returned to his family after weeks of torture at the hands of government forces, including kneecapping, cigarette burns, and castration. The Obama administration whined, but as usual, they won’t have the guts to call for Assad to step down until he’s stepped down. That’s unfortunate, because the fall of Assad would be a serious blow to an Iranian ally.
By going into Libya, the White House took its eye off the biggest looming threat. (On the other hand, Libya did prove that Obama could be convinced to do anything — allegedly in this case by a handful of “Warrior Princesses” — so if I was Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, I wouldn’t feel so confident that a military response would be out of the question.)
Iran policy watchers like to describe Iranian machinations as “three-dimensional chess.” It’s about time the White House puts on its 3-D glasses. We need a new strategy to deal with Iran in the post–Arab Spring world. Here’s what I propose — it’s short of bombing and more effective than economic sanctions. Obama likes to talk about Iran’s hypocrisy, so let’s recover the missed opportunity of a democratic Iran. Let’s start supporting Iranian opposition groups. Let’s work to turn the Arab Spring into a Persian Winter.
— Elise Jordan is a New Yorkâ€’based writer and commentator. She served as a director for communications in the National Security Council in 2008 and 2009 and was a speechwriter for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.