Michael Morell was acting and deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2010 to 2013.
One of the interesting aspects of international affairs is that states and nonstate actors will occasionally say publicly exactly what they are thinking, doing and planning to do. No need for spies, no need for diplomats — just a need to listen.
In the mid-1990s, Osama bin Laden said repeatedly that he saw the United States as his most important enemy and therefore as his key target. Bin Laden delivered on these warnings in August 1998 in East Africa, in October 2000 in Yemen and in September 2001 in New York and Washington.
In a hotly contested election campaign in early 1998, India’s Bharatiya Janata Party told voters in its platform that, if elected, it would openly deploy nuclear weapons. Once the BJP was in office, analysts played down the nuclear plank as campaign rhetoric. They were proved wrong in May 1998 when India conducted multiple underground nuclear tests, becoming a declared nuclear weapons state.
The world recently witnessed another moment of such candor — and it came just weeks before Iran and world powers agreed to a framework for how to handle Iran’s nuclear program over the next 10 to 15 years. Last month, a senior adviser to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke at a conference in Tehran on “Iran, Nationalism, History, and Culture.” The adviser made clear that Iran’s ambition is to become a regional hegemon — in short, to reestablish the Persian empire.
The adviser, Ali Younesi — who was head of intelligence for former president Mohammad Khatami — told conference attendees, “Since its inception, Iran has [always] had a global [dimension]. It was born an empire. Iran’s leaders, officials and administrators have always thought in the global” dimension.
Younesi defined the territory of the Iranian empire, which he called “Greater Iran,” as reaching from the borders of China and including the Indian subcontinent, the north and south Caucasus and the Persian Gulf. He said Iraq is the capital of the Iranian Empire — a reference to the ancient city of Babylon, in present-day Iraq, which was the center of Persian life for centuries.
“We are protecting the interests of [all] the people in the region — because they are all Iran’s people,” he said. “We must try to once again spread the banner of Islamic-Iranian unity and peace in the region. Iran must bear this responsibility, as it did in the past.”
Younesi said that the aim of Iranian actions in “Greater Iran” was to ensure the security of the people there, adding that Saudi Arabia has nothing to fear from Iran’s actions because the Saudis are incapable of defending the people of the region. He also said that anything that enters Iran is improved by becoming Iranian, particularly Islam itself, adding that Islam in its Iranian-Shiite form is the pure Islam, since it has shed all traces of Arabism.
These are not the views of a single individual. They are shared widely among Iranian elites. They are also not new. They stretch back decades and are deeply rooted in Iranian society and Persian culture.
Younesi’s speech was an outline of Iran’s grand strategy. And, most important, it puts into context Iran’s behavior in the region — largely covert operations to undermine its Arab neighbors, Israel and the United States, the countries that stand in the way of its pursuit of hegemony.
Iran conducts terrorism as a tool of statecraft — it is one of the only countries in the world to do so — largely against its neighbors. An Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States in a Georgetown restaurant was foiled in 2011. Iran supports international terrorist groups, including Hezbollah, which was behind the 1983 attacks on the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 258 Americans. These attacks are seen as the beginning of Islamic jihad against the United States as well as the start of the use of suicide car and truck bombs.
Hezbollah’s stated reason for its existence is to destroy Israel. This is also Iranian state policy. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the most powerful person in the country, said in a speech in Tehran in late 2013, “Zionist officials cannot be called humans; they are like animals, some of them. The Israeli regime is doomed to failure and annihilation.”
Iran also provides support to Shiite groups in the region with the intent of reinforcing Shiite-led governments or overthrowing Sunni Arab regimes. Tehran’s extensive support has assisted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s killing of more than 100,000 of his own citizens. Iran’s support to Shiite militia groups during the Iraq war resulted in the deaths of hundreds of U.S. servicemen there. One of Iran’s proxies, the Houthis, recently overthrew the popularly elected government in Yemen.
This grand strategy, of course, is inconsistent with U.S. interests, and Iran knows that. At the conference, Younesi said that Iran was operating in Greater Iran against Sunni Islamic extremism, as well as against the Saudi Wahhabis, Turkey, secularists, Western rule and Zionism.
The nuclear framework agreement announced Thursday is a good deal for the United States. If fully implemented by Iran, it will push Iran’s breakout time to produce a weapon from just a few months to beyond a year, while making it difficult for Iran to cheat. But it will also, once sanctions are lifted, give Iran more resources to pursue its grand strategy, as outlined so clearly by Younesi. It has always been important that the United States and our allies have a policy to counter this strategy and contain Iran — and now it is even more important that we do so.