Jewish World Review Dec. 23, 2003 / 28 Kislev 5764
Next we must figure out Iran
ADELPHI, Md. Matthew Levitt, an expert in how terrorism is funded, looked pained when I asked him about Iran.
What, I asked, should America do about Iran's habit of paying for global terrorism _especially given that its people are among the friendliest toward Americans and that its government is split between unelected Islamic extremists and elected moderates trying to introduce some reforms?
Levitt sighed, then offered this: "Iran is complicated beyond belief."
A senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Levitt was speaking to a recent seminar on terrorism organized by the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism at the University of Maryland.
He's right. Iran is a terrible problem. Its leaders have paid for and encouraged terrorism for a long time. Its radical mullahs spew hate, doing violence to the long and creative traditions of the Persian people.
But if Americans have suffered because of Iran - and they have - it's also true that America's hands are not clean when it comes to Iranian history. For instance, no serious scholar now doubts that the Central Intelligence Agency, along with British intelligence services, played a big role in the 1953 coup that re-installed Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi as the country's authoritarian ruler. Then American governments supported this corrupt man's long reign.
When the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Iran and took power in 1979, his extremist followers ran amok, finally seizing the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and holding hundreds of Americans captive for more than a year.
There is much more to America's disquieting involvement in Iran, but that doesn't change the truth that since the Khomeini revolution, Iran's religious leaders have fomented global terrorism.
"Iran is the driving force behind international terrorism," Michael A. Ledeen writes in his recently updated book, ``The War Against the Terror Masters.'' The fall of Iran, he says, "would be the current equivalent of the fall of the Soviet Union."
Iran supports such terrorist organizations as Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda. Ledeen says the terrorist attacks on Saudi Arabia earlier this year were planned in Iran by al-Qaeda leaders, including one of Osama bin Laden's sons. And Levitt says many al-Qaeda members have been under "house arrest" in Iran in the last year or so, but are free enough there to plan attacks around the globe.
Revolutionaries, says Levitt, "control every critical aspect of government" in Iran, despite the presence of such reformers as President Muhammad Khatami. As Gary Sick, director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University, says, "Iran has a split personality."
Levitt maintains that split does not extend to policies on development of nuclear weapons or sponsorship of terrorism. On those matters, he says, Iran's divided leadership thinks, speaks and acts as one.
And yet the Iranian people show broad support for democratic ideas. That was quite visible earlier this year when an Iranian woman, Shirin Ebadi, won the Nobel Peace Prize and thousands of people demonstrated in support of her in the streets. Iranian authorities have imprisoned her many times to silence her, but her reformist ideas nonetheless have much popular support.
"The Middle Eastern state where we (Americans) have the most support on the ground is Iran," Levitt says.
Some people have proposed trying to organize a massive strike by Iranians against their government. But it's unclear whether that would succeed in bringing it down or simply making things worse. And it's crucial that any revolution come from Iranians, not from America or the West.
Iran has made recent gestures toward complying with U.N. demands to curb its nuclear program, but as Levitt notes, the question is not whether but when the country will be able to build such weapons.
If Iran is pushed into a corner, says Levitt, "the most effective way for it to lash out would be through (terrorism by) Hezbollah," which, he says, has financing and cells through the world.
"There is," as Levitt notes, "no easy answer to Iran." But if we are really fighting terrorism and trying to help people live in freedom, we must be aware of - and do what we can change - the cancer that Iran has become.
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