It's been nearly half a decade since 9/11 and the big question remains: Are violent Islamists on the run as a result of the US response? At the least, Al Qaeda has not repeated an attack in the US. On other fronts, US success is tentative, especially in dealing with Iran.
All around that keystone power in the Middle East the US is heavily engaged in either combat, covert operations, or intense diplomacy. The Taliban in Afghanistan are out of power but their remnants keep US and NATO soldiers engaged. In Iraq, the US has killed Al Qaeda's local leader, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, and finally helped create a democratic government. But it's made little headway in quelling sectarian slaughter.
While Iraq struggles to become a model Arab democracy, as the US hoped by invading it, other successes in boosting regional democracy have put two militant Islamic groups – both supported by Iran – in a new, harsher light.
As a result of recent elections in which their political wings did well, Hamas radicals in the Palestinian territories and Hezbullah guerrillas in Lebanon are now in the awkward position of having to decide whether to bend to popular opinion and end their drive to eliminate Israel.
If either succumbed to that democratic will, it would weaken Iran's influence. It would also lift US hopes that the Iranian people might also moderate the terror-exporting policies of their Muslim leaders, if not boot them out.
Unfortunately, the US, which brands Iran as the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism, only recently launched a campaign to support the forces of democracy in Iran. Since 9/11, the Bush administration's main focus has been to prevent the reigning clerics in Tehran from developing nuclear weapons. A White House fear that Iran might slip an atomic bomb to terrorists someday – the same fear that drove the US to attack Iraq – at first led it to further isolate Iran and brandish "the military option." That changed in 2003 when President Bush supported European talks with Iran aimed at providing incentives in exchange for Iran giving up nuclear research that could be used to make bombs.
When the talks faltered this year as the world learned more about Iran's deceit over its nuclear ambition, Bush decided to both bolster the package of incentives and join the multilateral talks directly, but with one big condition: that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment. He has also tried to win support from Russia, Japan, and Europe to impose economic sanctions if Iran refuses the offer.
This "bigger carrot, bigger stick" approach has put Iran's clerics in a difficult spot: Keep the nuclear option or give it up in return for trade and aid that will boost their weak economy and keep them in power? The US has given Iran weeks to respond.
More than Iraq, a denuclearized and fully democratic Iran would be the real post-9/11 prize for the US in the Middle East. The showdown over that endgame now appears near. If Bush keeps enough allies on board and forces Iran to back down, then the kind of radical Islam that blossomed with Iran's 1979 revolution and hit hard on 9/11 could be on the run.
If not, the US faces further stark choices in a "long war" on terror. The limited successes so far have helped. The US needs a big one like Iran.