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Ahmadinejad, Khameini, al-Assad — Oh My!

Iran never misses an opportunity to seize an opportunity.

When the Mubarak regime collapsed in Egypt, Iran was quick to characterize the event — possibly with some justice — as signaling the decline of American/Western influence in the region. Whether that’s true or not, Mubarak’s departure constituted an unexpected and exciting opening for Iran, which immediately tested the Americans’ and the Israelis’ stomach for provocation by sending two warships through the Suez Canal.

This was a major development for two reasons. The first you already know: it was the first time Iranian warships had passed through the Canal since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The second point, which got far less attention, is this: the transit marked the first time Iranian warships had ever been granted permission to dock at Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia. This is extraordinary, considering the Saudis’ urgent desire to contain Iran, and suggests a timidity in the face of an emboldened enemy that might, one would hope, be of some interest to the US State Department.

The Iranian ships were destined for Syria, with which Iran is swiftly consolidating its military relationship. Both countries have been busy of late, but the radar sweep of American media attention seems determined to avoid catching a blip anywhere other than Libya at the moment. You should be aware of the following recent events:

  1. Iran and Syria have formally agreed to cooperate on naval training, including personnel exchange. (Hence the warships.) Iranian naval commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari said “the message of the ships is to announce peace and friendship to Islamic countries and the region and attempt to strengthen relations between the countries,” while Iranian Ambassador to Syria Ahmad Mousavi hastened to reassure skeptical observers that Iran “does not seek to wage war against anyone.” (The reassurance wasn’t really necessary, it seems, since no one is admitting to paying much attention. The Israeli FM Avigdor Lieberman called the Iranians “insolent,” but DM Ehud Barak insists there wasn’t anything on the ships to worry us. The Americans admitted rather diffidently to “watching” the progress of the ships, but wouldn’t commit themselves to concern or even interest.)
  2. In the wake of the collapse of the Egyptian military’s efforts to impede arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip, Iran has rushed in to build new infrastructure in the Sinai to enable more efficient arms transfers to Hamas. (By efficient, I mean more advanced weaponry and in larger quantities.) During the Egyptian uprising, dozens of police stations in the Sinai Peninsula were abandoned by policemen fleeing Bedouin armed with missiles and assault rifles. The resulting Wild-Westian anarchy has enabled Iranian proxies to act in the area with near impunity.
  3. Last Saturday, Russian DM Anatoly Serdyukov said that Russia has decided to fulfill a contractual obligation to complete the transfer of cruise missiles to Syria, despite two years of entreaties by the Israelis not to do so. The Israeli Defense Ministry fears that the missiles could “fall into the hands of Hezbollah, just as other weapons systems came from Syria.” The weapons in question are surface-to-air rocket units armed with P-800, or Yakhont, missiles. According to Haaretz, they are capable of hitting ships 300 kilometers off Syria’s coast.

It’s impossible to tell from the lack of media attention to these events whether the White House is oblivious to them or maintaining a shrewd and tactical silence. It’s safe to say, though, that the President is clearly profoundly uncomfortable with anything resembling imperial meddling. Is this prudent caution, or is he — as his critics contend — constitutionally unable to defend American interests abroad without compromising his personal principles? I honestly don’t know, and at this stage of the game, any commentator who claims to know for sure is probably yanking your chain. I will say, however, that the total silence emanating from the White House in the face of developments that are threatening both to American interests and to American ideals doesn’t inspire much confidence.

If the overthrow of Ahmadinejad and the mullahs fails, as it almost certainly will, the US will need to be prepared for a much bolder Iranian theocracy, whether it likes it or not. As far as Syria is concerned, it is certainly in American interests to address that country’s apparent decision to formalize its relationship with Iran. Assad has picked his team, and it ain’t us. The strategic consolidation currently in progress will almost without question eventually turn to aggression against Americans or American allies. When it does, polite protestations from Washington that “the violence must stop” just won’t cut it.