Monday, February 8, 2016

James J. Coyle: Iran's threats to American interests

Published in the Orange County Register on February 26, 2014. To access the original article, click here.

As Iran receives limited sanctions relief in return for a six-month moratorium on the enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, pundits are alive with speculation that this is the precursor to restoring relations with the Islamic Republic. Ali Khamenei remains the “supreme leader” and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani remains the regime insider who bragged of his prior expansion of the Iranian nuclear program without incurring international sanctions.

That means recent history is full of hurdles that need to be overcome.

Despite the nuclear accord, Iranian activities continue to threaten the United States and its allies. The U.S. Institute of Peace reports Iran has developed the Sejil-2 ballistic missile that can deliver a payload 1,500 miles and a top Iranian military commander bragged that Iran has developed drones with a range of 1,250 miles. These activities threaten U.S. allies such as Azerbaijan, Israel and Saudi Arabia. A 2012 Pentagon report estimated that Iranian missiles could reach U.S. shores by 2015.

Iranian-supplied weapons have already killed Americans, if WikiLeaks is to be believed. U.S. officials raised to Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan that his country sold rockets and machine guns to Iran in 2003, which then provided them to Iraqi Shiite militants to kill American soldiers in 2007. Sargsyan denied any transfer had occurred. However, a Western diplomat said the U.S. had multiple streams of intelligence connecting the Armenian arms shipment to Iran with the deaths of the U.S. soldiers.

Iran has also used ad hoc terrorist groups to further their interests. In Washington, D.C., a guard at an Iranian diplomatic mission assassinated an exile leader in 1980. Years later, in 2011, the FBI and DEA uncovered a plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the U.S. and to bomb the Israeli embassy.

Azerbaijan, an ally that has supported the United States in both Iraq and Afghanistan, uncovered a number of Iranian plots. In 2007, the government convicted 15 people on charges of espionage in favor of Iran. In February 2012, Azerbaijani authorities arrested a second group who planned to kill two teachers at a Jewish school in the country's capital, Baku. In March, the security forces arrested 22 people hired by Iran to attack the U.S. and Israeli embassies, as well as Western companies. Authorities seized assault rifles, grenades, ammunition and explosives.

Iran has supported Armenia in its conflict against predominantly Muslim – but secular – Azerbaijan as a means of avoiding economic international sanctions. According to American scholar Michael Rubin, in 2012 Bank Mellat, a sanctioned Iranian bank, was operating in the Armenian capital of Yerevan and Iranian businesses dotted the city.

Iran continues to back the Lebanese terror group, Hezbollah, which threatens Israel's northern border and supports the bloody Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Argentinean prosecutors claim that Hezbollah has operated outside of the Middle East, alleging involvement in the 1992 and 1994 bombings in Buenos Aires. Israeli authorities report a February 2012 arrest in Thailand of Iranian citizens who were planning to bomb Israeli citizens. While Rouhani and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have dropped former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's anti-Israeli rhetoric, there has been no lessening in Iran's opposition to the existence of Israel.

One is encouraged by the efforts to overcome the decades of mistrust. There are a number of issues that need to be resolved, however, before Iran can be welcomed back into the comity of nations.

James J. Coyle is the director of Global Education at Chapman University and is the chair of the Eurasian committee of the Pacific Council on International Policy.