Politics & Policy

On Iran: It’s Not about the Bomb, It’s about the Strategy

Achieving a weak nuclear deal will thrill the arms-control crowd but do little to erode Iran’s campaign to control the Middle East.

This weekend’s​ Sunday-morning talk shows remained focused on Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress and its possible effect on the ongoing talks with Iran on its nuclear program.

In the meantime, a seemingly innocuous but related event Sunday morning was lightly reported: Yesterday morning, Mahan Air of Iran landed its first commercial flight to Yemen in decades. Even though there is no passenger traffic of almost any sort between Yemen and Iran, Yemen’s new Shiite government and Teheran have scheduled 14 direct flights per week between the two countries.

This first flight was delivering “medical aid.” Ah, of course. Mahan Air, a “private” airline, was called out in 2011 by the U.S. Department of Treasury “for providing financial, material, and technological support to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF).” Treasury designated the airline a material and transportation supporter of terrorism, saying: “Based in Tehran, Mahan Air provides transportation, funds transfers and personnel travel services to the IRGC-QF.” In Treasury’s 2011 press release on this matter, Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen said:

Mahan Air’s close coordination with the IRGC-QF — secretly ferrying operatives, weapons, and funds on its flights — reveals yet another facet of the IRGC’s extensive infiltration of Iran’s commercial sector to facilitate its support for terrorism. Following the revelation about the IRGC-QF’s use of the international financial system to fund its murder-for-hire plot, today’s action highlights further the undeniable risks of doing business with Iran.

The general pattern, evident over years, shows that Iran has a well-oiled machine for smuggling massive quantities of sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza strip.

Despite the enormous political and military investment in Yemen over the past decade, the U.S. and its European allies fled the country over the past weeks, as it sank into chaos. Iran saw its chance and was in like a shot. This move is part and parcel of Iran’s national strategy: exporting its revolution through specialized military and intelligence units, gaining hegemony over the Gulf region and the greater Middle East, pushing the U.S. out of the region, and isolating and weakening, if not helping to dismember Israel. In just the past five years, Iran has created or consolidated well-armed satrapies from the Turkish border to the Gulf of Aden, and from the Mediterranean and Red Sea to the heart of Afghanistan.

The Middle East may be the graveyard of most foreign policies, but Iran’s, by contrast, has been remarkably successful over the past decade. And its success has accelerated dramatically over the last five years. And yet U.S. policy has largely failed to focus on comprehensively confronting, arresting, and rolling back the threat of an increasingly hegemonic Iran. Instead, our Iranian policy — outside of Treasury sanctions — seems to be centered almost entirely on achieving and then celebrating some kind of nuclear deal. 

There is no doubt that Iranian nuclear weapons would change the balance of power dramatically; inevitably, they would start a nuclear-arms race throughout the Middle East. And we should be more concerned with Iran’s nuclear ambitions than with North Korea’s programs for the simple geopolitical reason that North Korea is a weak state surrounded by strong states while Iran is a strong state surrounded by weak states.

Even so, Iran’s nuclear ambitions are just a means — a tool. It is Iran’s geo-strategy on which we should be chiefly focused, not the details of getting a nuclear-arms agreement. Others have written sensibly about why a bad nuclear deal is much worse than no deal, and I do believe that the priests and priestesses of the arms-control crowd are head-down in technical details and hell-bent on getting to any deal, no matter how weak. It is the way they define success — damn its strategic relevance.

But doing any deal right now — at the very moment when Iran is achieving unprecedented success in its campaign to destabilize the entire region — is like cheering about saving a tree as the forest burns all around. It is strategically incongruous, if not ultimately debilitating, to be having a let’s-reach-a-deal dialogue with Iran right now on this one set of means. It’s not the bomb; it’s the strategy that is our problem.

— John Hillen is the chairman of National Review and a former assistant secretary of state.

John HillenMr. Hillen is the incoming Wheat Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Hampden-Sydney College and is a co-author of What Happens Now: Reinvent Yourself as a Leader Before Your Business Outruns You.

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