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What the Iranian arms shipment means

Yesterday Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to great lengths to emphasize the nature of the Iranian regime and its true intentions. Likewise, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) cautioned, “Iran is actively sponsoring the proxy war in Syria sending money, weapons and fighters every week — every day.  Simultaneously, it is sponsoring attacks against Sunnis in Iraq and promoting regional sectarian violence that could easily result in a broader regional conflict.  Make no mistake, while they are smiling at our negotiators across the table, they are plotting in the backroom.” Both were proven correct by the latest discovery of Iranian aggression:

The Israeli navy seized a ship in the Red Sea on Wednesday that was carrying dozens of advanced Iranian-supplied rockets made in Syria and intended for Palestinian guerrillas in the Gaza Strip, the military said. The disclosure came as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in the United States to press his case for tougher international action against Iran over its disputed nuclear program and support for Islamist guerrilla groups.

Israel’s Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon responded to the news, “Iran’s true intentions were revealed yet again today.  While [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani continues his globe-trotting charm offensive, Iran is actively funding and arming terrorists throughout our region.  It should now be clear to the international community that any easing of the sanctions against Iran will directly result in a strengthening of the terror organizations that operate under the auspices of the Ayatollahs.”

The incident is significant on a number of fronts. First, a former U.S. official who has been critical of the Obama administration, observed that “the so-called moderates are presiding over an aggressive foreign policy designed to create instability throughout the region. If Rouhani is in favor of all this, he is no moderate; if he is opposed to it but cannot stop it, he has no influence.” The official added, “His only function is to mislead the United States into thinking he is a moderate, so that we change our policy toward Iran and weaken the sanctions.” (The so-called moderates are also executing Iranians at a record clip.) And, judging from the interim, he is doing a splendid job.

The incident also points to another problem with the talks. Not only, as Menendez pointed out, are the Iranians using the talks and sanctions relief  for cover to continue their advanced research and missile program (“This is not a nothing-ventured-nothing-gained enterprise”), but also they are inhibiting the United States from responding to Iranian behavior outside the talks.

Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a key architect of sanctions, warns, “The nuclear talks with Tehran already have constrained the Obama administration’s willingness to respond to a range of Iranian provocations including the arming of anti-American terrorists like Hamas, Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite militias and the Taliban, extremist groups in Yemen and Bahrain, and rogue regimes like Assad’s.” The notion of containment after Iran gets a bomb is therefore preposterous. “Iran’s threat network will be supercharged when the Islamic Republic becomes a threshold nuclear state and American willingness to push back forcefully will be even more severely constrained,” Dubowitz tells me. “That freedom for terror, after all, is a major reason why Tehran has pursued nuclear weapons capability in the first place.”

It doesn’t have to work that way, as we saw during the Reagan presidency when we negotiated with the Soviets on arms control and still checked their aggression in Central America and condemned their human rights record. But President Obama is no Ronald Reagan. Eliot Cohen, a former State Department official and now the head of the Strategic Studies program at the Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies tells me that “in principle” the talks shouldn’t have to impact our rigor on other fronts. However, he says, “In practice, it does. Because we separate diplomacy (as in ‘rigorous diplomacy’) from the exercise of power and the substance of foreign relations and treasure it as a good unto itself, we are unwilling to look reality squarely in the eye — and that includes calling out our enemies when we find them doing nefarious things.”

Put differently, the entire Obama approach is based on the notion that Iran is or can be a normal nation state, that it wants integration into the “international community” and that it makes entirely rational decisions based on a cost-benefit analysis. This is only the latest incident to demonstrate why this is false and hence why the talks are doomed to fail. What is consistent with everything we have seen for decades? Iran is a fundamentalist Islamic state that employs terror and murderous allies (e.g. Syria) to accomplish its aims, including the destruction of the state of Israel; and in putting a friendlier face on its interlocutors with the West, the regime hopes to lift sanctions while keeping its sponsorship of terror going full tilt and its nuclear weapons program intact. And so far, it’s working like a charm.