“Al Qaeda has a new home base: it is the Islamic Republic of Iran.” – These were the sloppiest words spoken by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in the waning weeks of the Trump Administration.
Pompeo’s words were sloppy not because al Qaeda, the Taliban, and a retinue of other Sunni Islamist terror groups have not used Iran as a conduit for their regional evil-doing. They have and continue to do so.
Instead, Pompeo’s words were sloppy because they misrepresented what was actually going on between the Shiite-dominated Islamic Republic of Iran and the multiple Sunni extremist groups that Iran has supported and given refuge to throughout the years.
Iran is not al Qaeda’s “new home base,” as Pompeo said.
The Islamic Republic of Iran, however, allows al Qaeda, the Taliban, and others to use their territory as a safe haven from American attack in neighboring Afghanistan. Tehran’s rulers also look the other way while Sunni Islamist groups use Iranian territory to link their operations together in Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond.
Yet, it is highly unlikely that the Shiites of Iran would ever deign for Sunni extremist groups to base their operations in Iranian territory.
The Enemy of My Enemy is My Friend
Iran is ethnically Persian and religious Shiite Muslim. Being ethnically distinct and belonging to a religious minority in the predominantly Arab Muslim world, Iran has no real allegiance to any group other than its own co-religionists—the Shiites. Specifically, the Shiite Islamists who created the Islamic Republic in 1979 and who still rule the country with an iron fist are interested only in preserving their regime.
This is why, by the way, the Islamists ruling Iran have shown no compunction about signing a one-sided, 25-year trade deal with the People’s Republic of China that Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iran expert, described as “colonial” in which Tehran’s rulers have “granted [China] significant rights over Iran’s resources.”
The reason Iran did this was not because they love China. It was because they correctly believe that China and the United States are engaged in a quasi-war with each other and the enemy of their enemy is their friend. This is the same reasoning that has led the mullahs to move Iran into Russia’s camp, as Russian forces use Iran as a base of operation from which to launch massive airstrikes against U.S.-backed Islamist groups (erroneously described as “pro-democracy” or “moderate” rebels) in Syria.
I bring up Iran’s bizarre interplay with both China and Russia as an example for what I believe the mullahs are doing with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other Sunni Islamist groups. In Syria, for example, these same groups are getting pummeled by the joint Iran-Russian-Assad forces fighting there. But, when it comes to Afghanistan or Iraq, the Iranians are content to let Sunni Islamists use Iranian territory as a safe haven.
No, Tehran’s rulers are not pro-al Qaeda or pro-Taliban. They just want to harry the Americans who are fighting in Afghanistan and are engaged in military operations in Iraq—a territory that Iran’s rulers view as little more than an Iranian colony.
Hell, the Iranians even aligned briefly with the United States to push ISIS out of Iraq and to fight them in Syria from 2014-16. At no point did Iran’s rulers view the United States as an ally. They needed American airpower to clear a path for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and their allied Shiite militias in Iraq to move more freely. The Islamists in Iran used the Americans to gain leverage in the region—harming America’s strategic position.
The Biden Administration Falls Into Geopolitical Quicksand
Similarly, the Pentagon spokesman, John Kirby, made one of the most idiotic—and offensive—comments imaginable about Iranian-backed militias attacking American military targets in Iraq. During a recent press conference detailing why the Biden Administration opted to launch airstrikes against elements belonging to a Shiite militia group, Kateab Hezbollah, in Iraq, Kirby repeatedly described this paramilitary force as being a “Shiite-backed militia.”
You can view the exchange between the reporter looking for clarification from Kirby on the designation of Kateab Hezbollah as a “Shiite-backed militia” here:
It is at this point, given Kirby’s arrogant comments, that I simply must bring out one of my favorite Lando Mollari quotes from Babylon 5:
It is true that the Islamic Republic is ruled by radical Shiites. It is also true that those fighting on behalf of Iran in the surrounding areas are themselves Shiites. But it is an exaggeration to say that groups like Kateab Hezbollah are “Shiite-backed.”
In fact, the Islamic Republic’s main victims tend to be other Shiite Muslims who disagree with the methods and practices of the Islamists in Tehran.
Normally, I’d not pay attention to an exchange of the kind that Kirby had with the reporter. Yet, it’s hard to ignore when one realizes that in the span of 27-seconds the reporter gave Kirby no less than three opportunities to issue a mild correction. Instead, Kirby oddly doubled down on his improper description.
The question must be asked, then, is this the way that the U.S. government sees things?
After all, Kirby was acting in his capacity as the Pentagon’s official spokesman.
Just like Pompeo’s sloppy language about Iran being a “home base for al Qaeda”, Kirby’s sweeping language totally denigrates Shiite Muslims everywhere—many of whom either don’t support terrorism or the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Iran’s Internal Chaos is America’s Advantage
Fact is, Iran is riven with internal division.
For two years, riots and protests have plagued the mullahs who purport to rule a nation that can trace its history back more than 2,500 years. As the novel coronavirus spread from Wuhan, China to the rest of the world in 2020, one of the hardest hit countries was Iran. The dislocations in Iran caused by COVID-19 coalesced into the ongoing political unrest. These protests, in turn, have proven to be a serious, protracted, and distributed threat to the control of Iran that the mullahocracy needs to survive.
Why risk undermining people who could be natural allies for the United States, Israel, and the Sunni Arab states by denigrating Shiism this way?
Why agitate American and Western audiences into potentially repeating the Iraq War only in Iran by erroneously claiming that Iran was al Qaeda’s new home base?
The reality of the situation is that Iran’s regime poses a unique strategic threat to the United States and its regional allies.
Washington Keeps Confusing Tactics with Strategy
Even as the Biden Administration pounds its chest at Iran, laughably celebrating a few pinprick airstrikes directed against dispensable Kateab Hezbollah fighters in Iraq, the Biden foreign policy team dutifully works to get the United States—along with the feckless Europeans—to reenter the 2015 Obama era Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran (otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal).
This, even as Iran has already enriched weapons-grade uranium beyond the limits that the JCPOA had demanded.
So, just like the previous Obama Administration, the Biden Administration appears to be getting some of the tactics against Iran right (retaliating against Kateab Hezbollah for attacking American forces in Iraq). Yet, at the all-important strategic level, Washington is getting everything wrong. The Iran nuclear deal gave Tehran a legal pathway to nuclear weapons.
As Suzanne Maloney of The Brookings Institute—no pro-Right-wing organization—told Congress a few years back, the JCPOA allowed Iran to begin building out its nuclear weapons arsenal by 2025. Under the deal, by 2030, all remaining limitations imposed on Iran’s nuclear weapons program would be eliminated under sunset clauses written into the original agreement.
America’s regional allies have also indicated that allowing Iran to acquire nuclear weapons would precipitate countermoves by the Israelis and Sunni Arab states that few in America would like. Multiple Israeli cabinet officials have intimated that Israel would seriously consider preemptive nuclear attacks against suspected Iranian nuclear weapons facilities if the JCPOA went into effect.
For their part, the Sunni Arabs—as led by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—have already expressed interest in developing their own nuclear weapons arsenals. Given the weakness of the Arab regimes in these countries and the presence of Sunni Islamists who could topple the relatively pro-American, Arab regimes in these lands, allowing for the Sunni Arab states to build nuclear weapons to deter Iran might backfire in a big way should those pro-American governments ever be overthrown.
Plus, the JCPOA does nothing to address Iran’s primary threat to the United States and its allies: Iran’s growing ballistic missile capabilities. Already, Iran has sent over long-range precision missiles to Hezbollah operating against Israel from Lebanon. Iran has used similar technology against Saudi Arabia from Yemen, where Iranian-backed Houthi Rebels ravage the land there.
These missiles, even more than the nuclear weapons program, pose clear and present dangers to the United States and its allies. Absolutely nothing is being done by the Biden Administration to address this threat. And granting Iran’s rulers the ultimate concession of being allowed a legal pathway to nuclear weapons would only compound the Iranian regime’s threat to the region.
The Enemy Threat Doctrine of the Islamic Republic of Iran
The strategic threat that Iran’s Islamist regime poses is its ideology. Birthed in fiery anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism, the Islamic Republic of Iran has spent more than forty years—its entire existence—waging war against the United States, Israel, and the Sunni Arab states. Whenever America has attempted to retaliate, it has been indecisive and weak. In turn, the Iranians, despite their apparent weaknesses relative to the Americans, continue on their warpath against the United States and its allies.
With advanced, long-range precision ballistic missiles as well as a legal nuclear weapons program, Iran will be able to fulfill their long-term strategic ambition of pushing the Americans out of the Middle East, crushing Israel, and subjugating the Sunni Arab states. The mullahs will effectively rewrite the regional order in their favor, with the help of Russia and China. What’s more, the mullahs will court war—even nuclear war—with the West in an attempt to intimidate the West into backing down from Iran’s threats and ceding the region over to them without much of a fight.
Biden’s team appears to be embarking on that course. The solution is not to make overhyped claims about an Iranian-al Qaeda alliance as the George W. Bush Administration did in the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003, when former Vice-President Dick Cheney and other leaders at the time told the press that al Qaeda was operating on behalf of Saddam Hussein. Those claims were wrong back then. They are wrong today, as it relates to the Islamic Republic of Iran and al Qaeda. These groups use each other to kill Americans. That’s a far cry away from being in an alliance.
And the solution is not to use such overstated claims to build a case for an American-led invasion of Iran. That would be a disaster, especially now. If Iran’s threats redound to ideology, ballistic missiles, terrorism, and nuclear weapons; if the Americans have natural allies in Israel and the Sunni Arab states, then the logical strategy for Washington is one of deterrence, containment, and restraint. The same policies that won America the Cold War can—will—win America the Little Cold War with Iran.
In order for this to work, however, the Biden Administration must not alienate the Saudis and Israelis. And Washington cannot get mired in the sideshow that is the Syrian Civil War (again, the Biden Administration appears poised to make this mistake).
Washington must marshal its strength, pull back from the region as much as possible and effectively hand off the daily management of the Middle East to the Israelis and Sunni Arabs. These two groups are more than capable of containing Iran, if they are given the support and incentives to do so.
Time will tell if Washington can achieve this strategic goal. Once properly contained, Iran’s regime will collapse under the sustained pressure in much the same way that the Soviet Union did. If Washington continues behaving as it currently does; if it keeps misinterpreting the Iranian threat to the West and encouraging the crazies in Tehran to take greater aggressive actions against the United States, Israel, and the Sunni Arabs, then Washington will have precipitated a nuclear world war in the Middle East.
Brandon J. Weichert is the author of “Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower” (Republic Book Publishers). He can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon and Clubhouse @wethebrandon. His second book on Iran’s threat to the world will be released in the next year.
Be sure to purchase Winning Space here: