John McCain, Republican senator from Arizona and presidential hopeful, is absolutely right about the gravity of the threat from a nuclear Iran.
But does anyone notice something strange?
McCain strongly backed President Bush in toppling Saddam Hussein and is an unabashed hawk in the war against militant Islamism. Presumably, he cheered when Bush launched his doctrine of regime change against rogue regimes -- the famed "axis of evil," of which Iran is a charter member.
Yet even McCain describes the Iran crisis as something separate from the fight against terrorism. How can this be?
Somehow the old, pre-Sept. 11 idea that fighting terrorism means hunting down groups like Al Qaeda, rather than confronting terrorist states, has crept back into the minds of even the most ardent supporters of Bush's foreign policy. Perhaps McCain made a slip of the tongue, but if so, it was quite a slip. What he should have said was that preventing a nuclear Iran is the pivotal challenge facing the war against terrorism today.
But doesn't everyone know that Al Qaeda is Sunni and Iran is Shiite, and never the twain shall meet? Iran supports Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad against Israel, but what do the mullahs have to do with Al Qaeda and Sept. 11?
In reality, the conventional notion of a chasm between the Sunni and Shiite branches of the Islamist jihad is mistaken.
The official 9/11 Report has a whole section titled "Assistance from Hezbollah and Iran to Al Qaeda" that notes "we now have evidence suggesting that eight to 10 of the 14 Saudi 'muscle' [9/11 hijackers] traveled into or out of Iran between October 2000 and February 2001."
The report states that Al Qaeda terrorists received "advice and training" from Hezbollah, and cites detainee testimony that "Iran made a concerted effort to strengthen relations with Al Qaeda after the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, but was rebuffed because bin Ladin did not want to alienate his supporters in Saudi Arabia."
The same source reports that Iranian border inspectors were instructed not to stamp the passports of Al Qaeda operatives, mainly to facilitate travel to Saudi Arabia.
On Dec. 18, 2005, The New York Times reported that after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, "Al Qaeda lost its sanctuary, and Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders scattered to Pakistan, Iran and other countries."
There is, then, no shortage of direct connections between Iran and Al Qaeda, including specifically connections to the Sept. 11 hijackers. Sunni and Shiite terrorists, it turns out, are happy to work together toward a common cause such as killing Americans and Israelis. Still, it might be argued that Al Qaeda, regardless of any assistance it receives from Iran, is essentially an independent actor and so it is a stretch to claim that targeting Iran is an efficient way to fight Al Qaeda.
But this sort of thinking, although common, also misunderstands the war we are in. Putting terrorist groups at the center and their state backers on the periphery is the wrong way around. The whole progress of the war, in either direction, should be measured, as the terrorists do, in the coin of states, not groups.
Al Qaeda knows that no terrorist group can subdue the United States, let alone control the world. The militant Islamist theory of victory is simple: Take over as many states as possible, first in the Muslim world, then beyond.
Now that pro-terror regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan are gone and Libya has cried uncle and ostensibly abandoned the terror/nuke business, Iran is far and away the most important terrorist regime in the world. For Israel, Iranian nukes are obviously an existential threat. But for the world, as well, a nuclearized Iran would represent the pivot between a world with more terror states and one with fewer.
Make no mistake, if the mullahs fell, it would be a major, perhaps mortal blow, to Al Qaeda and to militant Islam worldwide. This is so because terrorists depend not on military power, which they lack, but on a sense of inevitability and despair, which they hope to create. They are either the wave of the future, or they are nothing. When the Taliban fell in Afghanistan, there was suddenly a surplus of Bin Laden T-shirts in Peshawar, Pakistan.
McCain said something else important in that same interview: "The Iranian people are not happy under these mullahs. They oppress and repress them. We've got to do much more to encourage the democracy movement in Iran."
He's right for two reasons: The fall of the Iranian regime would deal the greatest blow to Islamist terrorism, and it is the only sure way to protect against a nuclearized terror state.
As columnist Amir Taheri noted, the West should "acknowledge that the problem is not uranium enrichment but the nature of the Iranian regime. More than 20 countries, from Argentina to Ukraine, enrich uranium without anyone making a fuss. But who can trust the present leadership in Teheran not to embark upon some tragic mischief in the name of its ideology?"
The Iranian regime should be the subject of withering international isolation of the sort used to topple Somoza in Nicaragua, Marcos in the Philippines, the apartheid regime in South Africa and, most recently, to reverse the stolen election in the Ukraine. Indeed, the mullocracy is more deserving of pariah status than any of these other nasty regimes since it both oppresses its own people and poses a dire threat to international security.
The great irony is that though Iran's aggression compounds its human rights sins, its support for terrorism has allowed it to escape the campaigns used to vanquish less-threatening dictatorships.
The most significant impact of economic, or even military, sanctions may not be their direct effects but their contribution to a comprehensive denial of legitimacy. Though the mullahs seem to revel in flouting the international community, it is such isolation and rejection -- and their own people -- that they fear most. The ultimate solution to the Iran problem is an old-fashioned one: revolution.
Saul Singer is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post, where this first appeared.
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