In the shadow of Iran's nuclear threat

With Thursday's commencement of another International Atomic Energy Agency meeting to discuss Iran's nuclear pursuits, it is time to take a realistic look at the potential threat. At best, a nuclear armed Iran would undo the delicate balance of power in the Middle East. At worst, it could start a global Armageddon.

The solutions being offered range from military action to continued negotiations and granting of more concessions. But the possibility of a nuclear armed Iran is some way off. The director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Vice Admiral Lowell Jacoby, testified in February 2005 that Iran is unlikely to have the ability to build a nuclear weapon before "early in the next decade."

Iranian-backed terrorism, on the other hand, is happening right now. Individuals are being killed almost every week as a result, and over the past two-and-a-half decades many people - including Americans - have died because of it.

Tehran makes no effort to deny its connection with what it calls "resistance groups" or "liberation movements" and what Washington calls "foreign terrorist organizations." On the last day of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's trip to Damascus, Syria on Jan. 20, he met with Hizbullah's Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Abdallah Shallah, and Hamas political bureau chief Khalid Mishaal. These three visited Tehran in August, September, and December 2005, respectively. Mr. Ahmadinejad also met with the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, General Command Secretary-General Ahmed Jibril.

The Jan. 20 meeting garnered no attention in the Western media, which instead focused on the expressions of mutual support from the presidents of two countries facing international censure for their egregious behavior. However, Hizbullah's Al-Manar television and Iranian state radio did report on the meeting, at which Ahmadinejad and the Arabs reportedly discussed the need for unity and resistance in protecting Lebanon. According to Iranian state radio, the Iranian president described "resistance, unity, and tranquility" as the requirements for defeating US efforts to strengthen the "Jerusalem-occupying regime," Israel.

At a press conference one day before the meeting, Ahmadinejad and his host, President Bashar al-Assad, addressed similar topics. They stressed that "the world arrogance and Zionism should not be given the chance to fulfill their plots in Lebanon and turn the country back to the stage of civil and ethnic wars of 25 years ago." Turning to Palestinian affairs, they called for "continued resistance" as the "only way" to end "the occupation of the holy Islamic lands."

Meanwhile, the new Iranian ambassador in Damascus, Mohammad Hassan Akhtari, said Iran intends to "continue supporting the Lebanese resistance in confronting the Israeli occupation," Lebanon's Al-Diyar newspaper reported. The first postrevolutionary ambassador to Damascus, Ali-Akbar Mohtashami-Pur, is credited with having an important role in Hizbullah's creation. He now runs the International Conference to Support the Palestinian Uprising (intifada) series. Leaders from many terrorist organizations attended the first two conferences - in 2001 and 2002 - and another one is scheduled for early this spring.

A terrorist act pales in comparison with the destruction wrought by a nuclear weapon. But for Iran the two issues - terrorism and nuclear weapons - are linked. Iran's desire to become a nuclear power has as much to do with status as it does with its unstated strategic goals or its stated desire to diversify its energy sources. As a nuclear state, Iran would be elevated to the status of a global power, and this would cement its perceived role as a leader of the Muslim world.

Similarly, Iran's support for groups such as Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad can be linked with its desire to be a Muslim leader. The Shia Muslim Persians are a minority in the predominantly Sunni Muslim Arab world, but Iran can stake out a leadership position, regardless, by showing itself to be more militant than any other Muslim state.

There are other links between Iran's support for terrorist groups and its nuclear pursuits. Iranian military officials stress repeatedly that if attacked they will resort to asymmetric warfare and unconventional means against their attackers. In other words, terrorist groups linked with Iran could strike in places such as South America, North America, or Europe. Moreover, the Iranian government cites Western counterterrorism activities as evidence of discrimination against and oppression of Muslims. Belief that one is oppressed could be used to justify acquisition of a nuclear weapon.

The terrorist issue may be more problematic than the nuclear one. Iran does not deny that it wants to be a nuclear power, and ultimately, all relevant decisions are made in Tehran. Thus, the international community knows it must deal with the Iranian government directly. Tehran does not direct groups like Hizbullah and Hamas, on the other hand, and it only admits to providing them with political support. It is not clear who the responsible decisionmakers are, therefore, which makes it hard for the West to exert any influence. Regardless of the difficulty, however, we ignore the terrorism issue at our peril.

Abbas William Samii is a regional analyst at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Inc. The views expressed here are his own.

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