On the anniversary of the July 18, 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires a bomb exploded on board a bus carrying Israeli tourists in Bulgaria. For President Obama’s foreign policy advisers, this event should bring to mind the breakdown of negotiations between Washington and Tehran that hammered a nail into the coffin of Jimmy Carter’s presidency. For the Israeli response to this event could push foreign policy into the spotlight of America’s 2012 presidential contest. And Iran’s response could highlight a fundamental flaw in the White House’s counterterrorism strategy: Like his predecessors, the president continues to avoid addressing a key theme among the jihads being waged against the US and our allies — Iran’s role as the leading state sponsor of terrorist groups waging these jihads.
The 1994 attack in Buenos Aires that killed 85 was orchestrated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ special operations division known as the Qods (Arabic for Jerusalem) Force, and Iran’s chief terror proxy, Lebanese Hezbollah. For his involvement in the planning of that attack, Interpol later issued an arrest warrant for then Qods Force Commander General Ahmed Vahidi.
Vahidi has yet to be arrested. Today, he is serving as Iran’s minister of defense, and the Qods Force continues to aid and abet the world’s deadliest militant Islamist groups, including Hezbollah, Hamas, foremost lethal factions of the Afghan Taliban, and even Core Al Qaeda and its affiliates.
Created with an official mandate to fund, train, equip, even create terrorist groups that target US and Israeli interests globally, it was the Qods Force that was behind a recently foiled plot targeting Israeli and Saudi officials and facilities in Washington, DC. While many signs point to Hezbollah agents, it will likely be determined the Qods Force, whose hand is evident in several other similar recent terror plots, is also responsible for the July 18 attack in Bulgaria.
According to some terrorism experts, when it comes to the ease with which the Qods Force is able to deliver support to terrorists who execute these attacks the US is not without some blame. Their contention is that by failing to take actions focused on interdicting this support, policymakers continue to enable it.
As a consultant to President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council recently put it to me, since the Islamic Revolution forced the Shah from power the US has bolstered Tehran’s willingness to support terrorists by adopting a policy that may be described as “kick the can down the road, and let the next administration figure out what to do about this.” He added: “The Obama administration has basically adopted the same policy. But it has the cover of the issue of Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, which is really just a convenient distraction from the already lethal issue of Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism.... We know thousands of Americans have been killed and injured in attacks supported by Iran. Iran has yet to detonate a nuclear weapon. Meanwhile, we have yet to do anything to meaningfully disrupt Iran’s support for militants who continue to kill Americans.”
Another former high-ranking defense official sees it this way: America’s inaction in the face of such attacks as the 1983 bombing of the US Marine Corps barracks in Beirut that killed more than 200 US servicemen, or Iran’s facilitation of travel through its borders for Al Qaeda members who plotted and carried out the 9/11 attacks has enlivened the wills of Iran’s ayatollahs to play central roles in the jihads being waged against the US and Israel. Moreover, it is America’s inaction which has empowered Iran’s leaders to literally institutionalize the regime’s practice of supporting these elements, with responsibility for the management of such relations delegated to the Qods Force by the Grand Ayatollah himself.
Responding to news of the attack in Bulgaria, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu advised “all signs point to Iran.” He notified the world that “Israel will react strongly to Iran’s terror.”
Of course, no country has been more severely or regularly impacted by Iran’s involvements in such attacks than Israel. And although the US has consistently failed to issue appropriate responses to Iranian-backed terror attacks targeting American interests, the history of Israel’s dealings with such situations is quite different.
In the case of Israeli responses to these events, history indicates Mr. Netanyahu was not bluffing when he said strong actions will be taken by his government to address the July 18 attack in Bulgaria. And as Israel is dually concerned about Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technologies, it is reasonable to anticipate sites and individuals associated with the regime’s nuclear programs will be targeted in Israel’s response to the July 18 attack.
But in this scenario it is what happens next that could make both terrorism and US counterterrorism policies focal points of news cycles for months to come. For it is only logical to deduce that Iran will unleash its terrorist proxies against Israel — the US, too — in unprecedented form in response to strikes targeting the regime’s nuclear facilities, or individuals supporting Iran’s nuclear programs.
This scenario could do more than just jeopardize America’s security. It could also severely limit the future of the Obama presidency. If, that is, history is a strong enough indicator of how the US will deal with Iran should this scenario unfold.
In recent months, the Obama administration has loosed a spigot of leaks about his counter-terrorism policies to score political points — to counter assertions Mr. Obama is the wrong man for the job of Commander In Chief at a time when Islamic terrorists pose the foremost threats to global security. Given such behaviors, it would seem reasonable to conclude the president is concerned about how perceptions of his counterterrorism portfolio could sway votes.
If the president is as concerned about perceptions of his counterterrorism credentials as his administration’s behaviors suggest, he should be mindful of this: Iran’s activities and Israel’s responses to these activities may very well force foreign policy into the political discourse this fall in ways the Obama campaign might not prefer. And Mr. Obama must be prepared to tell the American people why he has done so little to cut off a key lifeline to Hezbollah, Hamas, the Afghan Taliban, and Al Qaeda.
Indeed, inaction in the face of Iran’s use of terrorism to counter the interests of America and our allies might come at a much higher price than has been paid by any of Mr. Obama’s predecessors.
Michael S. Smith II is a principal and co-founder of Kronos Advisory, counter-terrorism adviser to members of the United States Congress, and a senior analyst with Wikistrat Ltd. Follow him on Twitter@MichaelSSmithII.