Politics & Policy

The Road to Tehran…

Assad's fall will have a domino effect.

The Syrian-Iranian terror alliance goes back a long time, at least to the mid-1980s, when Hezbollah was created to wage terror war against American and French forces in Lebanon. There was a neat division of labor: Syria controlled the territory, and Iran ran the organization. Hezbollah’s murderous successes are legendary, from the suicide bombings against the French and American Marine barracks to a similar operation against the American embassy, all in Beirut, to massive bombings of Jewish targets in Argentina. That alliance remains intact, and provides the base of the terror war in Iraq today.

So it should not have surprised anyone that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad flew to Damascus last Thursday to meet with Bashar Assad, nor was it surprising that among his entourage were key Iranian officials in charge of Hezbollah, probably including the operational leader, Imad Mughniyah. And in case our Middle East analysts were in doubt about the mission of the Iran-Syria partnership, a suicide bomber struck in Tel Aviv at about the same time Ahmadinejad and Assad were meeting.

A Weakening Grip

Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian blogger presently in the United States, summed up the intent of the two leaders as follows:

And so it happened just like we knew it would. Iranian President Ahmadinejad has just announced the formation of new alliance including Syria, Iran, rejectionist Palestinian groups, and Shia factions in Lebanon (in other words: Hezbollah).

The die seems to have finally been cast. The Shia Crescent has just been formalized and reconfigured into a living and breathing entity, with its own network of supports from among the secular nationalist movements and extremist Sunni groups, which simply have no other means of support at this stage.

The Iranians are concerned at signs of cracks in the edifice of the Assad regime, and are at pains to remind the Syrians that the destinies of the two tyrannical regimes are closely linked, and they must continue to make a common front against the destabilizing revolutionary forces unleashed on the region by the United States. Assad is now famously under pressure from unexpectedly honest U.N. investigations into the assassination of Rafik Hariri in Lebanon, and that pressure has intensified after the defection of former Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam, now openly calling for regime change in Damascus. Things are also a bit dicey for Assad in Lebanon, where there have been many calls for disarming Hezbollah.

Assad had been hinting that he would be willing to cooperate with investigators, provided he and his family were given immunity, but the Bush administration has rejected any such deals, as Vice President Dick Cheney emphasized on his recent sortie to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, both of whom had given signs of willingness to compromise. But following the Cheney trip, both governments took a tough line, and even Amr Moussa, the head of the Arab League and a man who has given new meaning to the concept of appeasement of tyrants, said there would be no leniency with the murderers of Hariri. To add an exclamation point to this welcome show of American seriousness, the Treasury froze the bank accounts of the head of Syrian military intelligence, Bashar’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat.

In short, the Assad family’s grip on Syria is weakening, and this is welcome news indeed, both for the long-suffering Syrian people and for us. The Iranians are obviously desperate to keep Assad in power, and Hezbollah armed to the teeth. Should things go the other way, Iran would lose its principal ally in the war against us in Iraq. As is their wont, the Iranians have been paying others to do much of their dirtiest work, and they have awarded Assad tens of millions of dollars’ worth of oil, as well as cash subsidies, to cover the costs of recruiting, training and transporting young jihadis, who move from Syria into the Iraqi battle space (and, according to Jane’s, a serious publication, the Iranians have also sent some of their WMDs to Assad for safekeeping). That deadly flow has been considerably reduced in recent months, thanks to an extended campaign waged by U.S. and Iraqi forces in Anbar Province, and further along the Iraq/Syria border. The Syrians have accordingly sent radical Islamists into Lebanon, perhaps to link up with Hezbollah in a new jihad against Israel.

Should the jihadist traffic into Iraq and Lebanon cease, we and the Iraqis would be free to concentrate our attention on the Iranian border, especially in the oil-rich south, where Revolutionary Guards forces are very active, both to contain the anti-regime rage of the Ahwaz Arabs on the Iranian side of the border, and to infiltrate the Iraqi side, both in support of Zarqawi’s terror network, and to agitate for an Islamic republic in the Shiite region around Basra. The Iranians have been hyperactive in that area ever since the fall of Saddam, and it would be a very good thing to start to turn the tables on them. For, just as many Iraqi oil fields, and millions of Iraqi Shiites, are vulnerable to Iranian maneuver, the reverse is also true: the bulk of the Iranian oil fields, and millions of Iranians, are vulnerable. And the strategic balance is definitely in our favor.

The population of the Iranian oil region is largely Arab, and they have been brutally oppressed and ethnically cleansed by the mullahs. Tehran has gobbled up thousands of square kilometers of land on the pretext of building industrial parks or expanding military facilities, and the locals have been protesting on and off for many months. As I wrote last week, the regime is so nervous about disorder in the spinal cord of the Iranian economy that they sent Lebanese Hezbollahis and members of the Badr Corps (Shiites of Iraqi origin trained in Iran for the past two decades and then sent into Iraq to fight the Coalition).

In short, the Iranians have a lot to worry about, regardless of whether or not they have atomic bombs. Indeed, as I have long argued, the mullahs have made an enormous strategic miscalculation by going all-out for nukes, because it has made regime change in Iran an absolute imperative for the West. The closer they get to their first nuclear test, the closer the mullahs approach judgement day, and not in the way the fanatics around Khamenei and Ahmadinejad believe. They will not face the 12th Imam, but the harsh condemnation of their own people.

The mullahs have long seen this threat, and indeed the elevation of Ahmadinejad was a desperate throw of the dice to quash any and all revolutionary forces in the country. In recent weeks, Tehran forced the government of Dubai to cancel all live satellite TV broadcasts in the Persian language. Just a year ago, the mullahs had similarly intimidated the Dutch government, even though parliament in the Hague had appropriated funds for the project. In a little noted sequence of events, the Dutch won some big contracts in Iran shortly thereafter, and the Bush administration fined Dutch banks to the tune of eighty million euros for embargo-busting (do you ever wonder, as I do, that this tasty information has to be gleaned from Rooz Online?).

This is the usual practice of insecure tyrants (whose sense of doom is demonstrated by the ongoing exodus of money and talent from the country). They cannot risk the consequences of honest news reaching their people, and they run around like little mad hatters, sticking their thumbs in every crack in their ideological dykes. They are now shutting down NGOs, which, according to the hard-line publication Qods, the interior ministry accuses of planning to overthrow the regime. The mullahs want Islamic organizations, not independent ones, which might support civil liberties or elementary human rights. They want a total monopoly on the flow of information inside the Islamic republic.

Power to the People

This situation is tailor-made for the Bush administration, if only it will support the Iranian people against the mullahs, and the Syrian people against the Assads. The Iranian people see the desperation of their rulers, and honest broadcasts into Iran will be welcome indeed. Support for the Ahwaz Arabs–provided we take care to stress that we have no interest in any separatist impulses, but seek to support all Iranians who wish to exercise their human rights–would also have considerable impact, as would support for the bus drivers’ organization, recently savaged by the regime, which has thus far received moral support only from Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa. Perhaps the Labor Department might say a few words about the suppression of workers’ organizations in Iran? And, for those millions of Iranians who do not fear the consequences of seeking the truth, we should be providing the tools of modern communications: phones, servers, laptops, phone cards, and so forth.

Meanwhile, we must increase our support for freedom in Syria. There are several new political organizations calling for Syrian freedom. Predictably, most of the organizers live outside the shadow of Assad’s thumb, but they have held recent meetings in Europe with a surprising number of Syrian citizens, they are beginning to broadcast into the country, and many entrails and tea leaves suggest far more support for democratic revolution than the cynical old guys at State and CIA had believed possible. The administration should embrace all such organizations–it is not for us to pick Bashar’s successor, that is the kind of old-Europe tactics best left to the futile Cartesian scheming of the Quai D’Orsay–and press hard for pulling the military fangs of Hezbollah, the sooner the better.

You can be sure that, as Assad collapses, the reverberations will reach Baghdad and Tehran. The Iraqis will gain the security they desperately need in order to advance their brave democratic project. And the Iranians, turbaned and bare-headed alike, will see the hour of their own freedom draw ever closer.

It sure beats drawing up a list of bombing targets, doesn’t it?

Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. He is resident scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute

Michael LedeenMichael Ledeen is an American historian, philosopher, foreign-policy analyst, and writer. He is a former consultant to the National Security Council, the Department of State, and the Department of Defense. ...

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