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President Trump (truly one of the strangest phrases in English after “Arnold Schwarzenegger, former governor of California…”) today followed through on a simulacrum of his promised ban on Muslims. The executive order prohibits the entry of individuals from Libya, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Syria and Iran. (Updated: a judge has recently issued a stay of sorts, so how this legally shakes out remains to be seen. Perhaps the American system, in Van Winklian manner, will shake itself out of the eight year hazy stupor when it comes to executive power and privilege.)
To some, it’s the inclusion of Iran that seems strange. After all Iran is a Shi’a country, and America’s terror problem is predominated by Sunni militants; ISIS, al-Nusra Front, Islamic Jihad, al-Shabab and most obviously al-Qa’ida. Additionally, Saudi Arabia and Egypt aren’t on that list even though that’s exactly where the 9/11 hijackers came from. The old joke is that every jihadist organization has Egyptian brains and Saudi muscle. Naturally, the Islamic Republic is quite miffed at the whole affair. The Persian inclusion has created an ad hoc coalition of the confused. The glasses pushers over at Vox are vexed;
Including Iran makes even less sense. The only terrorist attack an Iranian has tried to carry out in the US was a bizarre foiled plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador as he dined at an upscale restaurant in Washington, DC, in 2011.
Over at Twitter there’s a shared sentiment between paleoconservatives and a menagerie of leftists who are outraged at Iran’s placement on the list. Isn’t the whole thing just an Iranian obsession? Isn’t Iran a natural ally in the fight against ISIS? The common assumption here is that Iran is not any kind of threat to U.S. security. On face value this seems to make sense. Iran is a Shi’a country that is violently opposed to Sunni militancy. The main terror threat to the United States is composed of various Sunni organizations. Ergo, it’s unthinkable we would punish such an potential friend.
While I usually write on such issues from an immigration perspective, it’s the security question here that interests me and in particular the Persophilic take. In reality the our terrorism problem is not so simple. Iran can be both an enemy our enemy as well as a national security threat in their own right. Iran’s extensive sponsoring of terror against the United States makes Iran’s inclusion a reasonable one, if in fact a blanket entry ban is really called for (hint: probably not). How does Iran pose a terrorism problem for the United States? Let me count the ways.
Iran & The Party of God
To begin, it is an inescapable fact that Iran is the chief sponsor of violent Islamist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. This isn’t some cabal slander. It’s a fact openly admitted to and is the worst kept “open secret” in the Middle East. Furthermore it’s not as if Iran just drops in a couple bucks as the hat is passed around, like a 8th generation Irish-American in an Southie IRA pub. Hezbollah has been fairly open about the fact that Iran has operational control and final approval for their operations. Even analysts who are more convinced of Hezbollah’s independence admit Tehran’s influence is quite strong given two Iranian representatives sit on Hezbollah’s Advisory Council. This matters because of Hezbollah acts as a threat to American security, through their network of terror, murder, narcotics trafficking and a host of other crimes.
To put it bluntly, the Party of God is responsible for several attacks on America since the early 1980s continuing to the present day. While their primary focus has been against Israel and Lebanese rivals, Hezbollah has definitely diversified its activities to include murdering Americans. To whit; the 1983 Beirut embassy bombing, the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing, the 1984 Terrejon bombing, 1984 Beirut embassy annex bombing, the 1985 TWA 847 hijacking, 1988 murder of Col. William Higgins (USMC), and the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing among others. As late as 2012, Hezbollah attempted another bombing of an American embassy this time in Azerbaijan. Just in case you are under the delusion Hezbollah is engaging in self defense, then you would have to explain who exactly was defended by blasting 85 Argentine Jews to pieces in 1994. It should matter to anyone who is concerned about U.S. national security that the Islamic Republic bankrolls and green-lights these activities. (On a related note: it is even odder that Lebanon didn’t come up for discussion for an entry ban given the extensive network of Hezbollah criminal activity in the Americas.)
Iran’s Direct State Sponsored Terrorism
Iran doesn’t just farm out attacks to Lebanese patsies. The mullahs find plenty of time to roll those qabaa sleeves and do it themselves, like anything you want done well. Even if half of the U.S. State Department report is correct, then Iran is a major problem. The overseas arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which operates similarly to the KGB’s role of the state-within-a-state, really get around. When they’re not engaging in massive cyber attacks on US companies, they’re getting rolled up by Kenyan intelligence (which isn’t laughable as it sounds, the Kenyans have a decent intelligence organization inherited from the British ) for plotting to blow up US targets. More seriously Iran has killed hundreds of American soldiers in Iraq either through IEDs or other methods. Most troubling are the varied reports of Iran potentially aiding the very Sunni jihadist groups that they are so opposed to, in particular al-Qaeda and the Taliban. “Now hold on,” you say. “That is literally the stupidest damn thing I’ve ever heard in my entire life. Iran prides itself on being the protector of the Shi’a, why would they fund groups who hate and murder Shi’a? Are you telling me a government antagonistic an ideology would play footsie with those very people? That’s so dumb, that’s so shortsighted. Who would do such a thing?”
Oh I don’t know, just this small group of nations called, “Literally Every Major State Ever.” Whether it’s Germany shipping Lenin back to Russia while clamping down on Reds or the United States funding Afghan mujaheddin to take down the Soviets, this is a common form of strategic arrogance. It’s also a form of statecraft that nearly every Near Eastern power specifically tries their hand at. Saudi Arabia funds Sunni militants while cracking down on al Qaeda within its borders. Pakistan notoriously aids Afghan militants while thousands of Pakistani soldiers have died fighting the Taliban. Assad’s Syria is famed for its erstwhile opposition to Sunni militancy while simultaneously financially propping up Daesh, releasing hundreds of Sunni jihadists and funding al Qaeda operations during the Iraq War. Even Israel initially played softball with Hamas in the hopes the PLO would be weakened. Iran trumpets its self proclaimed role as protector of the Shi’a but will sell them out when it pays.
HUMINT in the Near East is a tricky game (ask Colin Powell’s career) but knowing how it’s played, do the myriad of reports about Iran’s potential working relationship with al-Qaeda and their ilk, really sound that ridiculous?
My point isn’t that Iran is pure evil or that this is even beyond the pale. Iran is a regional power and the United States is a great power. To borrow a phrase from Putin, “Let’s be adults.” This is pretty standard fare for how rivals act, although I would say there is probably somewhat of a qualitative difference between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. However as an American I would like my government to pursue our interests, one of which is not being blown to pieces.
Nor is my point that Iranians or Lebanese or indeed any set of Near Eastern nationals should be subject to blanket entry ban to the United States. Indeed I doubt the efficacy of such a ban could not be had by simply putting more resources into our visa vetting process from high risk countries. Furthermore, given the fairly low risk of a refugee driven terror attack, this policy is like using hydrochloric acid to remove acne. Sure you got rid of it, I guess but I bet some soap would work as well. But the bafflement of a few regarding Iran, its intentions and its activities is absurd. If we are going to use a blunt instrument like an entry ban, Iran almost certainly qualifies.
For various & sundry related to the topic;
- “The Shadow Commander,” by Dexter Filkins over at The New Yorker. Good in-depth detail on Qassem Suleimani, Iran’s Man in Baghdad.
- Hizballah and the Qods Force in Iran’s Shadow War Within the West by Matthew Levitt of the The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
- Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the Al Quds Force, and Other Intelligence and Paramilitary Forces by Anthony H. Cordeman of the Center for Strategy and International Studies.
- Terrorism and Immigration: A Risk Analysis by Alex Nowrasteh of Cato Institute.
- The Al-Qa’ida-Qods Force Nexus: Scratching the Surface of a “Known Unknown”
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