AMMAN, Jordan | The terrorist army formerly known as ISIS has conquered about a third of Syria and much of western Iraq. What are these jihadists going to do next? Assuming they can’t go to Disneyland — and, trust me, that’s high on their bucket list — Baghdad would doubtless be their destination of choice. Still, despite a series of bombings last weekend that killed more than two-dozen people, the predominantly Shia capital is unlikely to fall easily as did such Sunni-majority cities as Mosul. So the question being asked is whether these warriors will turn their lethal attentions toward Jordan.
“I’m well aware of such speculation,” a senior Jordanian government official tells me and a colleague. Like others here, he can speak more candidly if we agree not to quote him by name. He tells us that ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (Arabic for the Levant, an area that includes Jordan), which has now taken to calling itself simply the Islamic State, “is not a problem for the Jordanian military. I’m not worried. Not in the short run.”
He summons a deputy who brings a map on an easel. He indicates the areas in Iraq that the Islamic State now controls. He points out a long stretch of desert that Islamic State forces would have to traverse to reach a major population center within Jordan. “We’d know in advance that they are coming,” he says. “Our officers and troops would have plenty of time for a shower and breakfast before suiting up and heading out to destroy them.”
However, if the Islamic State can hold the territory it has conquered so far, exploit the wealth it has seized (including oil), continue to get along with its Baathist-Saddamist allies (who know a thing or two about imposing order and authority), and build its military capabilities (attracting volunteer jihadists from just about every corner of the world), could it not then pose a danger to Jordan? “Yes, in the medium- and long-term,” he says, “I am worried.”
I ask if Jordan is getting the support it needs from Washington. He says it is. I ask if Jordan is getting the support it needs from Israel. He is not coy: When it comes to common threats, the Hashemite Kingdom and the Jewish state enjoy extensive military and intelligence cooperation.
Of those common threats, the most significant is actually not the Islamic State. It’s the Islamic Republic. Iran is ruled by a sophisticated, oil-rich, terrorist-sponsoring, theocratic regime that claims its multibillion-dollar nuclear program is for “peaceful purposes only.” Think about that for a nanosecond: If Iran only wants to make electricity, why are its nuclear facilities built under mountains? Why is Iran simultaneously working to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach the United States?
Nuclear weapons are a means toward an end: Supreme leader Ali Khamenei is determined to establish Iran’s hegemony over the Middle East starting with Iraq (at least its Shia areas, which, owing in large measure to the sectarianism of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, have become more Shia than ever), Syria (governed by Ayatollah Khamenei’s loyal satrap, Bashar Assad) and Lebanon (dominated by Hezbollah, Iran’s terrorist foreign legion). Sooner or later, this neo-Persian Empire will threaten Saudi Arabia, the small but extraordinarily wealthy Arab states of the Persian Gulf and, of course, both Jordan and Israel.
The senior official’s advice to Americans attempting to find a diplomatic solution, one in which Tehran would give up its nuclear weapons program in exchange for relief from economic sanctions: “Remember that staying in power is the highest priority of Iran’s rulers.”
Other Jordanian officials reinforce these points. One asks if it’s true that some in the United States view Iran as a “stabilizing force” with whom the U.S. could ally against the Islamic State and other Sunni jihadist groups in the region. We reply that there are those advising the Obama administration that an Iranian-American rapprochement is both possible and desirable. He seems mystified by such naivete or ignorance, or whatever it is.
What about supporters of jihadism inside Jordan? In 2005, al Qaeda-linked suicide bombings killed dozens in Amman. More recently, there have been pro-ISIS demonstrations in Ma’an, an impoverished city in the southern desert.
We are told that only a small minority of Jordanians is sympathetic to the jihadists, and fewer still are eager to kill and be killed to further their cause. Most Jordanians, they say, have no desire to import into their neighborhoods the carnage and destitution being suffered by so many in Syria and Iraq.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees from those conflicts have been flooding into Jordan. Their first stop is the camps that sprawl along the kingdom’s northern border. However, tens of thousands, we are told, have by now moved into Jordanian cities and villages. Most are thought to be grateful to King Abdullah II for giving them safe haven.
The monarch, a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, believes in the possibility of developing a “modern Islamic state” whose mission would not be slaughtering infidels and apostates, but guaranteeing “the rule of law, justice, and freedom of opinion and faith” and upholding “equality, across the ethnic and religious spectrum.” Progress toward this goal would be slow in the best of times. Self-evidently, these are not the best of times.
Our Jordanian hosts make clear that they are confident — though by no means complacent — about the challenges facing them. They recognize that seismic shifts are underway in the Middle East, and that barbaric forces are on the rise. Like their quietly supportive Israeli neighbors, they understand that wars are seldom won by the war-weary. Too many American and Western leaders have yet to comprehend that.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.