National Security & Defense

How Obama Appeased Iran by Turning a Blind Eye to Hezbollah’s Crimes

President Barack Obama at a White House press conference in February 2016. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
A new report shows that in its efforts to reach a nuclear deal with Tehran, the administration went so far as to stop the DEA from cracking down on Hezbollah drug-running.

Over the weekend Politico’s Josh Meyer published a blockbuster report that can’t be allowed to disappear into the void of the holiday season. In painstaking detail, it documents claims that the Obama administration crippled Drug Enforcement Administration operations against Hezbollah as part of its effort to reach a nuclear deal with the Iranian regime.

Why would the DEA, of all agencies, target an international terrorist organization? It turns out that Hezbollah had become a major player in international cocaine trafficking and was using proceeds from its drug-running and arms-dealing to finance — among other things — the purchase of explosively formed penetrators (EFP’s), the deadliest IEDs used against American soldiers in Iraq.

Hezbollah had transformed itself into an “international crime syndicate that some investigators believed was collecting $1 billion a year.” The DEA’s “Project Cassandra” was designed to disrupt this syndicate. And just as the operation began reaching into the highest echelons of one of the world’s worst terrorist organizations, the Obama administration started to shut it down:

The Justice Department declined requests by Project Cassandra and other authorities to file criminal charges against major players such as Hezbollah’s high-profile envoy to Iran, a Lebanese bank that allegedly laundered billions in alleged drug profits, and a central player in a U.S.-based cell of the Iranian paramilitary Quds force. And the State Department rejected requests to lure high-value targets to countries where they could be arrested.

Some former Obama administration officials justified these actions on the basis that the DEA may have interfered with more important anti-terror operations conducted by other intelligence organizations. As one former official put it, the administration couldn’t let the CIA, the DEA, or any other agency “rule the roost.” But other sources confirmed that the administration in fact hindered the DEA for the sake of the Iran deal. For example, former Obama Treasury Department official Katherine Bauer testified to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs that “under the Obama administration . . . these [Hezbollah-related] investigations were tamped down for fear of rocking the boat with Iran and jeopardizing the nuclear deal.”

The consequences were deadly. In the most personally painful part of the Politico piece, Meyer details Hezbollah’s role in funding EFPs that “were ripping M1 Abrams tanks in half.” I remember the power of these weapons quite well. A smaller version of an EFP was used to kill men that I knew in Iraq. The mere threat of EFPs at one point shut down all ground supply routes into our base near the Iranian border. It’s a strange feeling indeed to ride down Iraqi roads knowing that there’s a weapon out there that would render all the armor surrounding you virtually irrelevant. EFPs killed hundreds of American soldiers, and they were supplied by the Iranian government and its Hezbollah allies.

But never mind. The Iran deal had to get done. The deal, at least in the Obama administration’s fantasyland, wasn’t just a nuclear deal. It was a step toward hopefully normalizing relations with Iran, bringing the Islamic Republic back into the community of nations. It was a legacy play, and it depended on a complete misunderstanding of the nature of our enemy.

When Obama pulled back, our enemies surged. When he gave them an inch, they took a mile.

You see, the Obama administration was in many ways captive to the “legitimate grievances” theory of jihad. This theory, outlined most famously in Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech, holds that jihad’s appeal is rooted at least in part in identifiable American and western abuses of the Islamic world. It was the root of the Obama administration’s deluded efforts to initiate a “new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world.” The administration would act to address credible Islamic grievances, and that action would and should trigger a good-faith response that would bring us closer to peace.

It all seems so quaint now. When Obama pulled back, our enemies surged. When he gave them an inch, they took a mile. There was no good-faith response, only the gleeful exploitation of newfound strategic advantage. When Obama finally re-engaged, American force was able to stop our enemies’ advance. But by then, the damage was done, and we’re still learning the extent of it today. We already knew that Obama gave Iran piles of cash, prisoners, an immense economic stimulus, and access to international arms markets in exchange for signing the nuclear deal. We now know — thanks to Politico — that the administration’s mercies extended even to Iran’s vicious terrorist allies.

And for what? Obama’s defenders cling to the hope that Iran’s nuclear program has been delayed (a hope that relies a great deal on trusting Iran, which has never proven wise in the past), but in the meantime we’ve merely strengthened our enemy. We’ve addressed those “legitimate grievances,” and Iran has taken our gifts and our goodwill and thrown them right back in our face. Iran and Hezbollah — with Russia’s help — have nearly completed their genocidal reconquest of Syria’s most populated regions. In Iraq, an Iranian general played a key role in the seizure of Kirkuk from our Kurdish allies. Iran hasn’t retreated one inch from its anti-Americanism or its commitment to international jihad. It’s even sending aid (including senior commandos) to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Three years ago, I wrote an extended piece arguing that Obama was idealistic about our enemies. He didn’t understand the depth of their hate. He fell for ridiculous academic theories about American culpability in the rise of jihadist violence. Little did we know how far the ideological rot went. Obama administration mistakes empowered the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the Middle East, relieving the pressure on the violent, extremist forces it pays for. These mistakes must be known. They must be remembered. And they must never, ever be repeated. America’s jihadist enemies cannot be appeased.


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David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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