Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Across the Middle East, the Mullahs Are Meddling

David Frum, National Post:
War is bomb blasts, explosions, violence, confusion. But maybe a short chronology of events can bring a little order to the story--and help us to understand the origins of this latest spasm of violence in the Middle East. READ MORE

Through this hot summer, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, have been working furiously to find a diplomatic solution to the problem of the Iranian nuclear bomb. In mid-June, the six powers formally offered Iran a set of incentives for abandoning its nuclear enrichment program, including light-water nuclear reactors and technology for Iran's civil aviation fleet. Iran spurned the offer. After another month of discussions, the six powers agreed to threaten Iran with economic sanctions. The threat was publicly issued in Paris on July 12 and reaffirmed at the G8 meeting in St. Petersburg on July 17.

As the nuke cops closed in, the Iranians flexed a little muscle of their own.

Iran has this year emerged as the most important patron and supporter of the Hamas terrorist movement. It pledged $50-million in aid to Hamas in April; Israeli sources report that Iranian intelligence officers have trained Hamas guerillas.

On June 25, Hamas kidnapped an Israeli soldier in a carefully planned and executed attack. The guerillas erupted from a 700-foot tunnel they'd dug underneath the border between Israel and Gaza, surprising an Israeli outpost from the rear. The attack predictably provoked Israeli retaliation.

Then, on July 9, the level of violence in the region surged upward again. That day, uniformed militiamen blockaded a predominantly Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad and massacred up to 50 civilians, dragging them from homes and cars to shoot them in the head in the streets. The unusually well-co-ordinated slaughter triggered a cycle of sectarian retaliation and counter-retaliation that left 628 people dead over the following week--and may push the total civilian death count for the month to 2,000, up from a horrifying enough 1,000 in June.

Again, the authorship of the July 9 massacre traces back to Teheran. The militia that carried out the attack, the Mahdi army, professes loyalty to the loudmouthed young cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. But as the Mahdi army has grown, it has generated its own military leadership, paid and trained by Iran.

In the first months after the liberation of Baghdad, al-Sadr tried to manipulate Iraqi nationalism against his more prestigious Shiite rival, the Iranian-born Ayatollah al-Sistani. Under pressure from his militia, however, al-Sadr has grown closer to Iran in recent months--and last month declared that his army would fight for Iran if the US attacked Iranian nuclear facilities.

After the sanctions threat on July 12, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator flew home via Damascus, where he reportedly met with Hezbollah leaders.

That same day, July 12, Hezbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers on the northern border. The next day, July 13, Hezbollah rockets were fired at Haifa and Israel's northern cities, forcing a full-scale Israel-Hezbollah war.

Does that make things a little clearer?

Iran's precise goals remain murky. Are they seeking only to pre-empt the Security Council calendar and divert attention away from the sanctions vote?

Or do they have bigger goals? Are they trying to rally Islamic opinion worldwide to their support? Do the rulers of Iran hope that inciting conflict with Israel and America will consolidate their claims to lead the Islamic world?

Or are they more audacious still? Might they possibly imagine that by turning up the level of terrorist violence against Israel and Iraq they might inflict a humiliating direct defeat upon the United States? With the U.S. Congress demoralized, the Iranians may calculate that they do not have to defeat American forces on the ground to break American public opinion--any more than the Viet Cong defeated the U.S. Army in the Tet Offensive.

In the same way, the mullahs may believe that Hezbollah can emerge strengthened from a battle with Israel. If this conflict ends with a negotiated ceasefire that leaves Hezbollah in control of south Lebanon, then Hezbollah has won--and so has Iran.

If Iran sees its goals as strengthening Hezbollah, driving the U.S. out of Iraq, and obtaining a nuclear bomb for itself, that list of priorities indicates what the Western world's counter-priorities have to be: destroying Hezbollah, securing Iraq, and halting the Iranian bomb program. The campaign to achieve those counter-priorities begins in Lebanon. It cannot end there.

David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.