With the fall of Saddam Hussein, no regime in the Middle East poses a greater threat to President Bush’s road map for Middle East peace than that in Iran. Ever since the 1979 overthrow of the shah, a longtime ally of the United States, and its replacement with a Shi’ite theocracy led by the Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran has been incorrigibly hostile to the United States and Israel. Since the signing of the Oslo I agreement in September 1993, a top Iranian priority has been preventing any peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Over the past decade, Iran has spent, conservatively speaking, tens of millions of dollars each year subsidizing terrorist groups, among them Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah. Each of these organizations is opposed to the existence of Israel in any form.
Since April 1994, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad have killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and other attacks. The Washington Times reported yesterday that U.S. intelligence officials believe Iran is harboring Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a top al Qaeda terrorist operative, who is believed to have planned the murder of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley in Jordan in October.
If there is a silver lining to this story, it’s the fact that a growing number of Iranians would like to free themselves from the oppressive rule of the mullahs, who constitute Iran’s strongest supporters of terror. Led by the Ayatollah Khamenei, they control the tax-exempt foundations known as bonyads, which account for upwards of a third of Iran’s gross domestic product. The bonyads subsidize Palestinian Islamic Jihad to pay for suicide bombings, even as Iran’s domestic economy stagnates.
In 1997, Iranians voted overwhelmingly to elect Mohammad Khatami, who campaigned as a reformer, as president of the country. Mr. Khatami ran as someone who would liberalize the economy and ease the repressive reign of the clerics. While Mr. Khatami talks about reform, he’s failed to deliver much in the way of substance. In the wake of September 11, young Iranians are losing their fear of the regime, and have become increasingly vocal about their displeasure with the status quo. Women have become no less vocal about their opposition to the chador, the cumbersome veils that the regime compels them to wear. And the regime now finds itself surrounded by Iraq and Afghanistan — countries liberated in the last 19 months from Saddam Hussein and the Taliban by the United States — and home to more than 150,000 U.S. troops. Washington is hopeful that this combination of internal and external pressures could eventually result in the ascension of Iranian leadership more interested in improving the welfare of its own people rather than aiding Palestinian terrorists, who blow themselves up on the streets of Israel.
Washington, in essence, has three choices when it comes to dealing with Iran’s support of terrorism. First, it could do nothing and hope for the best. Second, it could try to use military force to destabilize or overthrow the regime. The third choice is the middle-ground option, which the Bush administration has settled on for now: Use economic and diplomatic pressure to dissuade Tehran from supporting terrorism in order to destroy the peace process.