Yesterday, White House spokesman Jay Carney dismissed the idea that there ought to be any connection between the interception of an Iranian arms shipment headed for Gaza and the United States pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran. Carney noted that U.S. and Israel had shared intelligence about the sailing of the Kos-C, which was filled with sophisticated and powerful M-302 missiles that had been shipped from Syria and also acknowledged that this provides more proof of Iran’s “bad behavior” as a state sponsor of international terrorism. But he insisted that American efforts to negotiate an agreement with Iran on its nuclear weapons program were a separate issue.
The administration position is that a tough stance on international terror is compatible with a more forthcoming diplomatic effort aimed at persuading Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambition. While this sounds like an effort to defend a stance in which one hand of U.S. security policy doesn’t know — or care — what the other is doing, it’s conceit is more sophisticated than that. The subtext of the push for engagement with Iran is that nuclear diplomacy is a wedge by which the U.S. can ease the Islamist regime back into the international mainstream and make it easier for it to start acting like a responsible nation.
That sounds logical but it is exactly the sort of reasoning that Iran is counting on as it pursues its own two-track policy toward the West. The fallacy here is the assumption that Iran’s participation in international terror can somehow be separated from the nuclear threat. In fact, these are two elements of a common strategy aimed at destabilizing the Middle East and increasing Iranian influence. Treating one as if it had nothing to do with the other enables the president to rationalize a diplomatic strategy in which he deeply believes. But diplomacy that is based on willful ignorance of the other side’s goals is one that is doomed to failure. Rather than dismissing the Iranian arms shipment as irrelevant to the nuclear question, the president must shake off his ideological blinders and try to understand that the seizure of the ship is a clear warning of what lies ahead if he continues to blindly pursue engagement with Iran.
Iran’s purpose in shipping missiles to Gaza is no secret. By reviving its alliance with the Hamas terrorists who rule the strip, Tehran is not only hoping to acquire the ability to veto any chance of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. It must be seen in the context of a regional struggle for hegemony in which Iran can add Gaza to Syria and Lebanon as strategic outposts from which it can exert influence as well as inflict pain on Israel and the West. Even an Obama administration that is disinclined to think the worst of Iran or to engage in disputes with its leaders can grasp the danger that comes from Tehran moving its chess pieces around the international board in this manner. The regime’s Revolutionary Guard’s transfer of Syrian missiles to Gaza is not only a sign that it may believe the war it has waged along with Hezbollah (with Russian aid) to keep Iranian ally Bashar Assad is largely won but that it also wishes to open up a new front against the West in Gaza.
But to pretend that this threat can somehow be separated from the nuclear issue is testimony to the administration’s myopia about Iran than anything else. The point of Iran’s nuclear program is not just to create a weapon that would enhance the prestige of the Islamist government and secure its long-term survival despite the unhappiness of the Iranian people. It is also a means to extend and reinforce its effort to dominate the region via auxiliaries and allies. An Iran nuke does constitute an existential threat to Israel that has been repeatedly threatened with annihilation by the theocrats of Tehran. But even if that genocidal intent is never acted upon, a bomb gives the ayatollahs a way of creating a nuclear umbrella over Syria, Lebanon and perhaps Gaza and the West Bank (if Hamas ever succeeds in toppling the Palestinian Authority). That changes the balance of power in such a way as to threaten moderate Arab states as well as Israel. The missiles Iran sends to its terrorist allies may be not as frightening as its uranium enrichment program or heavy water plant but these are differences in scale not in purpose.
That’s why the arms shipment must be understood as more than a sideshow to the main event of nuclear diplomacy. The basis of hope for nuclear diplomacy is that Iran’s government is moderating and wishes to rejoin the family of nations. But what is really going on is a two-track policy in which Iran engages in off-and-on diplomatic activity designed to deceive Western leaders and undermine sanctions on the regime while at the same time actively building a weapon and seeking to dominate the region via terrorism and strategic alliances.
The seizure of the weapons ship ought to serve as a wake-up call to the West that nothing has changed in Iran. More to the point, even if they insist on pursuing the P5+1 diplomatic process, it must be done without any illusions about Iranian moderation or a desire for détente with the West. Iran’s deadly deception has been exposed. If the administration’s willful blindness about this prevails over common sense, it won’t make it any more likely that Iran will surrender its nuclear option. To the contrary, keeping the nuclear issue separate from that of the country’s sponsorship of international terror will only confirm the Islamist regime’s belief that it is succeeding in fooling the West.