The arsenal of terrorism found aboard the Karine A has been taken first and foremost as evidence of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's long-standing desire to escalate his offensive against Israel, and of his lack of interest in peace. But in one sense the more striking news was the revelation that Iran is stepping up its support for terrorism against Israel.
According to a senior diplomatic official who spoke with this newspaper, "Iran wants a base and a stronghold in the Palestinian Authority to threaten Israel." The purpose of the Iranian effort, the official continued, is to "counter an Israeli threat to their nuclear program through the use of terrorism." The emerging evidence of an alliance between the PA and Iran, which could evolve into a proxy relationship like that between Hizbullah and Iran, has implications not just for Israel, but for the region and for the global war against terrorism. Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, for example, is reportedly livid with Arafat over inviting more Iranian influence into the area, and will not speak with him.
In global terms, Iran's decision to open new vistas of terrorism is perhaps the most direct challenge to the American-led war on terrorism since September 11. America's victory in Afghanistan has led many terror-supporting nations to take steps to fall into line, and particularly to distance themselves from Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf 's banning of Kashmiri terrorist groups is just the most recent dramatic example of the lesson taken by the world that terrorism is simply no longer an acceptable tool of international relations. Iran has clearly not learned this lesson.
When the war in Afghanistan was at its height, Washington thought it detected signs of moderation from Iran. Even before September 11, detecting moderation from Iran had become a bit of an industry in foreign policy circles, with the fashionable view being that Teheran could be wooed into, if not joining the West, becoming an acceptable international citizen. When Iran did not vociferously oppose the American war in Afghanistan and even showed some signs of support - such as the Iranian foreign minister shaking hands with Secretary of State Colin Powell at the UN - the idea that America could work with the mullahs became even more prevalent.
Now this conception of Iranian pragmatism must be reexamined from head to toe. Last month, former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani put the lie to the idea that Iran's nuclear program is defensive in nature by openly speculating that Israel could be destroyed with nuclear weapons while the Islamic world could absorb any Israeli response. Then it emerged that Iran was already undermining the newly minted Afghan government and providing sanctuary to fleeing al-Qaida terrorists. Now Iran has been caught red-handed attempting to bring Palestinian terrorism to a new level.
US President George W. Bush has already warned Iran to stop making mischief in Afghanistan. Previously, the US put Hizbullah on its list of targeted terrorist organizations, which was also a clear signal to Iran, Syria, and Lebanon that some fundamental decisions were in order. But neither Hizbullah nor its patron, Iran, have yet been placed in the crosshairs of the war on terrorism. The capture of the Karine A - which was loaded to the gills with weaponry on an Iranian island well after September 11 - indicates that the relatively open Western hand outstretched to Iran has been more than rebuffed.
Rather than constantly searching for signs of Iranian moderation with a microscope, an analogy should be drawn to the era of Mikhail Gorbachev just before the fall of the Soviet Union. Unlike Iraq, whose regime begins and ends with one man, the Iranian regime is more of a system, like communism in the former Soviet Union. The system is crumbling and is likely to fall in the relatively near future. But in the meantime, it is important not to get too excited about the "moderates" who are just trying to relieve international pressure by throwing the West a few rhetorical bones.
On the contrary, the best way the West can help true Iranian moderates, whether they are inside or outside of the system, is to isolate Iran diplomatically and economically until the regime completely abandons support for international terrorism. For starters, this means cracking down on the financial network used by the Iranians to fund terrorism, parts of which exist in European and Arab countries. Russia also has to come under greater pressure to end the flow of its scientists to Iran's nuclear and missile programs, as documented in yesterday's Washington Post. Most of all, the Iranian "mullah-ocracy" must understand its support for terrorism is no longer a strategic asset, but rather a direct threat to its survival.
©2001 - Jerusalem Post