In case you haven't heard, peace is about to
break out in the Middle East.
I realize it doesn't look like that from the
headlines: The government
just fell in Yemen; Islamic State forces are threatening
U.S. Marines in Iraq's Anbar Province; Hezbollah is vowing
revenge against Israel for killing the son of one of their beloved mass
But then there is Iran. Thirty-six years after
the Islamic Revolution, the mullahs may finally be warming up to the Great
Satan. On Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Iran's supreme
leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, sent
a letter recently to President Barack Obama saying he was open to a more
direct alliance against the Islamic State, if negotiators could iron out a deal
on Tehran's nuclear program. Khamenei has even said publicly he was open to a
deal. Secretary of State John Kerry has been meeting with his counterpart, Javad
Zarif. The meetings! The channels! The back channels! Diplomacy!
It's the kind of thing that gets the hearts of
our Iran-watchers palpitating. Over the years, Iran has sent a string of
envoys to meet with Westerners to explain that their country's war against the
U.S., Israel, Sunni monarchies, ethnic minorities, gays, journalists and
dissidents is all a big misunderstanding. Deep down, many of Iran's leaders just
want peace, these emissaries say, but they always end up getting undermined by
the hardliners. Now, the hardliner of all hardliners, the supreme leader
himself, is talking about peace too. And he's even suggesting an alliance
against a common foe. Any day now, he will lead the crowd in chants of
"Life to America!"
All of this is tempting. The U.S. has little
to show for its on-again-off-again war against Iran, and the two nations' interests
should be aligned in the war on terrorism that began after Sept. 11, 2001.
The Sunni Islamists of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State consider the Shiites who
run Iran to be apostates of the true faith. Iran has been fighting them in Syria
and now is fighting them in Iraq. Why can't bygones be bygones?
But before declaring Iran's president his
generation's Gorbachev, it's worth considering some bad news. To start, Iran has
had an opportunistic relationship with al-Qaeda over the years, despite the
whole apostasy problem. A year ago, the Treasury Department laid a lot of this
out in a designation
about al-Qaeda's network in Iran. Terrorist operatives based in Mashhad, near
Iran's border with Afghanistan, were allowed to facilitate the transfer of al-Qaeda
fighters from Pakistan to Syria through Iranian territory. After 9/11, Osama bin
Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, cut
a deal with Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps to allow family members to
live in Iran while they moved from Afghanistan to Pakistan. Iran was also a key
base in the last decade for al-Qaeda operatives such as Saif
al-Adel, who was kept under a house arrest so loose he was able to write a
semi-regular Internet column and help plan al-Qaeda's war against the Iraqi
OK, opportunistic relationships can change.
FDR and Stalin were allies against the Nazis, but after the Third Reich
collapsed, the U.S. and the Soviet Union fought a cold war. Why can't Iran and
America be new allies in a war against the Islamic State? In many ways they already
The problem is: Iran really loves terrorism.
Since 1979, it has used terrorism as a tool of statecraft like no other
nation. In his testimony
Thursday before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Nick Rasmussen, the
head of the National Counterterrorism Center, said Iran and Hezbollah
"remain committed to conducting terrorist activities worldwide and we are
concerned their activities could either endanger or target U.S. and other
Iran's leaders have been implicated in
terrorist attacks in South America, Europe and the Middle East. The Justice
Department in 2011 accused Iran of attempting to kill Saudi
Arabia's ambassador to Washington at a popular Georgetown restaurant, Cafe
Milano. For the Islamic Republic to give up its predilection for terror
would require a cultural revolution inside its defense establishment. What would
the Quds Force be without car bombers and kidnapping?
Some might argue that the 2013 election of
President Hassan Rouhani, a supposed reformer, signifies just this kind of
change. But there is little evidence he is opening up Iranian society. State
executions of gays and arrests of dissidents continue. Even though Rouhani tweeted
in 2013 a Jewish New Year message to his followers on Twitter, the regime
remains steeped in ugly anti-Semitism. In response to the Charlie Hebdo
massacre in Paris last month, a cultural center in Iran with close ties to the
regime announced a Holocaust
cartoon contest. Despite Rouhani's campaign promises, the leaders of the
country's green movement, the people who took to the streets to protest the
2009 elections, remain under house arrest or brutal detention in the country's
prisons. If Iran is unwilling to stop terrorizing its own people, why should
anyone think it will stop terrorizing the citizens of its historic enemies?
And this gets to the most important argument
as to why an alliance with Iran is a recipe for more war. Iran has been a
partner of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as his troops continue to
massacre his own people, causing a death toll conservatively estimated to
be north of 129,000. In Yemen, Iran-supported Houthi rebels drove the Obama
administration this week to shutter its embassy and CIA station in Sana'a,
setting back a crucial war against al-Qaeda's Yemen affiliate.
Iran-supported militias in Iraq threaten the Sunni Arab population, driving many
potential Sunni allies into the arms of the terrorists. Iran's participation in
a coalition against Islamic State forces, while seemingly helpful, threatens to
turn a fight against a terrorist group into a bloody, regional
It's hard to know exactly what kind of deal,
if any, will emerge from Iran's nuclear negotiations in Geneva with the U.S. and
other great powers. But if Obama believes he can purchase Iranian
counter-terrorism cooperation with concessions on its nuclear program, he is
paying Iran twice and getting very little in return.
It's also possible that Khamenei's messages
have been lost in translation. With apologies to Mel Brooks, it could be that
when Iran's supreme leader said he wanted "peace," he meant: a piece
of Yemen, a piece of Iraq, a piece of Syria, a piece of Gaza, a piece of
Lebanon. You get the picture.