Last January, President Obama went over to the Pentagon to announce deep cuts in defense. He took the occasion to proclaim: "Even as our troops continue to fight in Afghanistan, the tide of war is receding." He could not have been more dangerously mistaken.
While the Pentagon ceremony was taking place, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was packing his bags for a tour of friendly Latin American capitals, including Caracas, Quito, Havana, and Managua. The Nicaraguan visit was on the occasion of the presidential inauguration of our old enemy, Daniel Ortega. The others, Ahmadinejad's spokesman said, were to discuss matters of "mutual interest." Venezuela was far and away the most important, but each was a significant part of a tide of war that is advancing, not receding—and it is advancing toward us.
The matters of mutual interest feature military and "terrorist" projects aimed directly at the American homeland. And that is only the Western hemispheric dimension. Ahmadinejad and his cohorts have worked very energetically to forge a global network that includes Russia, China, (sometimes) Turkey, Syria, and the Western hemisphere gang. In part, the network helps Iran bust the sanctions that have recently catalyzed a spectacular drop in the value of its currency. Money, weapons, refined petroleum products, and even crude oil get laundered through foreign banks, shell companies, and ports. But sanctions-busting is the least of it.
Iran has been waging war against America for 33 years, and kills Americans whenever possible. Since September 11, 2001 they have been the primary sponsors and suppliers of arms and improvised explosive device (IED) materials for the insurgency in Iraq and do much of the same for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the remaining insurgents in Afghanistan. And they will continue to provide this support to anyone who joins their alliance. Not for nothing is the Islamic Republic at the top of the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism. High-ranking al-Qaeda terrorist Saif al-Adel lived for years in Iran. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, operated from Tehran for a long time. Hezbollah, an arm of the Iranian regime, sends killers to Syria to massacre protesters, and to Afghanistan to murder Americans.
The war against us extends straight into the heartland. The Iranian-Latin American alliance sends Iranians (or their surrogates, as in the plot discovered last year to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington) into the United States. The Christian Broadcasting Network reports that 28 Iranians were arrested, briefly detained, and then released by Homeland Security in the first two years of the Obama presidency. All promptly vanished. Staff from Iran's United Nations offices have been sent packing when found performing late-night surveillance of New York City bridges, tunnels, and subway stations.
The Latin American Connection
Iran smuggles weapons to Venezuela, and vice versa. On May 24, 2009, for example, the State Department sent a secret cable to an official at the American Embassy in Ankara, regarding a shipment of "unmanned aerial vehicles and related material" from Iran to Venezuela by way of Turkey. The shipment was to have been transported overland from Iran and then loaded onto a ship bound for Venezuela. The Iranians planned to label the shipment "electronic equipment," in order to evade U.N. Security Council sanctions. The embassy was instructed to alert Turkish authorities and get the shipment stopped, which they did.
On January 30, 2011, around 5:00 a.m., there was a huge explosion in one of the Iranian facilities connected with the Venezuelan military-industrial giant CAVIM (Compañía Anónima Venezolana de Insutrias Militares) in Maracay, a city in north central Venezuela. A second explosion followed a couple of hours later. It was serious enough for President Hugo Chavez to fly there personally to inspect the damage. Press accounts described the area as a storage site for Russian weapons, which was no doubt true, but they did not mention the Iranian facilities, which have remained mostly secret.
Indeed, even if the explosion was outside the tightly guarded and very secure Iranian sites (there are some areas where no Venezuelan is permitted entry), the Russian weapons may well have been intended for Iran, since Venezuela has been used as a cutout for Russian arms shipments to the mullahs. That way, the Russians can deny selling forbidden goods to Tehran, and if the traffic is discovered Caracas can take the blame. The same system is used for laundering money to avoid the ever-tightening sanctions on Iran.
The most recent figures I've seen value Iranian ventures in Venezuela at $30 billion, which is surely less than the real magnitude (secret projects don't make it onto publicly available balance sheets). The symbol of the relationship is a flight between Tehran and Caracas, sometimes with a stop in Damascus, operated by one or another of the two countries' national carriers. Some of the passengers who disembark in Caracas do not pass through immigration, and are given Venezuelan passports. Western counter-terrorist experts believe that these "instant Venezuelans" are Hezbollah operatives. Other passengers are believed to be drug smugglers.
There are good grounds for these beliefs. The Iranians have created a terrorist network in the region under the leadership of Mohsen Rabbani, who is under indictment in Argentina for lethal terrorist assaults in Buenos Aires in the 1990s. The network carries out the full range of preparations for lethal operations. Rabbani's followers proselytize, fund-raise, recruit, and train operatives on behalf of Iran and Hezbollah.
The Iranian-Latin American network raised its head in federal courts in New York City in 2010, 2011, and 2012, when four men were convicted of plotting to blow up John F. Kennedy Airport. One of them, a former member of parliament from Guyana named Abdul Kadir, had met with Rabbani and others in Iran as the plot was being organized, and was arrested on an airplane about to leave Trinidad for Caracas and thence Tehran. The conspiracy included Kareem Ibrahim, according to the U.S. Justice Department "an Imam and leader of the Shiite Muslim community in Trinidad & Tobago, [who] provided religious instruction and operational support."
The mixture of religious leaders and terrorists is a common phenomenon. Drug-dealing is often folded in, as in the case of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards General Gholamreza Baghbani, who was sanctioned by the Treasury Department on March 7, 2012, for overseeing the traffic in drugs and arms between Afghanistan and Iran. The same pattern can be seen in the Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, in which the Iranians worked with a Mexican drug smuggler. DEA officials believe that the drug/terror nexus is so tight that it makes no analytical or operational sense to treat the two activities separately. The same conclusion has been reached by Colombian government officials, who have seen an expansion of drug- and arms-smuggling, along with an unexpected proliferation of mosques near Venezuela's borders.
The ties that bind Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Ecuador, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Russia, China, and others are all visible, even if many of the details of the relationship are publicly unavailable. We know that Hezbollah conspires with drug-trafficking networks in South America as a means of raising resources and conducting joint operations, and we also know Hezbollah works closely with the Cubans. As the leading Italian daily Corriere della Sera reported on August 31, 2011, three members of Hezbollah "recently arrived in Havana from Mexico City, with instructions to build a beachhead on the island."
In a few days [the report continued], 23 others will follow…. Known as the "Caribbean File," the project has a robust budget: more than a million and a half dollars…. For years, Hezbollah…has operated in Latin America. Their strong points are in Ciudad del Este (Paraguay) and Brazil, but their extremists are also established in many border cities and in Venezuela…. Once the network is established…one can move from Cuba to Mexico, and from there to the United States.
The Russian Connection
Where there's Cuba, Russia can't be far behind. The Kremlin is a major player in the global alliance. Much remains to be learned about its exact role, but it is safe to say that the Cubans would not provide Hezbollah with an operational base if Vladmir Putin told them not to. The Russians are clearly part of the money-laundering apparatus, and are major suppliers of weapons to Iran, Venezuela, and Syria. The Latin American cutouts serve them well. Well-informed people believe that the American drone that recently came to earth in Iran was defeated by a Russian system that jams satellite communications, including satellite phones and television broadcasts. More ominously, there appears to be very close cooperation between Russian intelligence and the Iranians. As we learned in June, the Russians are supplying Bashar Assad with attack helicopters, and, according to Le Figaro magazine, a recent attack in northern Syria was carried out to protect a Russian radar installation in Kessab, which monitors NATO, Free Syrian Army, and U.S. Air Force activities.
A considerable part of the Iranian nuclear weapons project—starting with the reactor at Bushehr—is Russian, and the Russians and the Iranians are working together in the paramilitary defense of the Assad regime in Syria. (A Russian Special Forces unit was reported to be in Syria as of March 19, 2012, and Russian advisers had been spotted on the ground even earlier.) Russian naval vessels loaded with attack helicopters and other materiel have been found headed to their port in Syria.
Alongside the Russians and Iranians, Bashar al-Assad is being vigorously supported by the most outspokenly leftist leaders in Latin America, the so-called ALBA (for "Bolivarian Alternative") countries (Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and a handful of Caribbean countries dependent on Venezuelan oil). At a summit meeting in Caracas in February 2012, the group rallied to Assad's side, using the same language as the Syrian dictator (and the same the Iranian regime uses against its own domestic opponents): "the member countries of ALBA condemn the violence armed rebel groups supported by foreign powers have unleashed against the Syrian people." The ALBA countries work hand-in-glove with Iran to hide financial operations. Ecuador, for example, does a surprising amount of business with Tehran, which, because of the introduction among ALBA countries of a virtual currency (the so-called SUCRE), is very difficult to track.
There is even the tantalizing possibility that Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, may have spent some time in the Soviet Union. A report from Russia Today on February 5, 2010 named Khamenei as one of Patrice Lumumba Friendship University's "most notable graduates." Earlier Russian publications—for example, Kommersant on November 25, 2003—made the same claim. If Khamenei indeed graduated from Lumumba University, you can write your own spy story about the connections between Tehran and Moscow. Lumumba University was a major center of KGB recruitment of Soviet "friends" and agents.
Not to be outdone, China is engaged in remarkable, though not much remarked, activities inside Iran. Just as it is building underwater submarine docks and other naval bases in myriad locations from the South China Sea to Pakistan and beyond,the People's Republic is establishing a chain of virtual colonies to ensure its access to Iranian resources. CNN reports that a draft treaty gives China total control over three big areas inside Iran, including on- and off-shore gas and oil deposits. All personnel are Chinese, and security is in their hands as well. There are now upwards of 10,000 Chinese military personnel in Iran, organizing operations at these sites, which are slated to remain under Chinese control well into the 2020s. In return, the Chinese offer banking outside the reach of the United States government, shipping companies that lend their flags to Iranian vessels, access to their ports, and easy entry to the international drug and weapons traffic. The increasingly effective throttling of the Iranian people's access to internet and other communications media is in large part courtesy of the Chinese. The Iranians then turn around and pass their expertise to the embattled Syrian regime.
An even more frightening possibility is the potential for military exchanges in the realm of cyber war. As we know from extensive coverage of "Stuxnet" and "Flame," the Iranians, Chinese, Russians, and others are developing better capabilities to prevent and deter future Western actions against nuclear weapons programs. Their support for one another portends deeper ties in the future and more complex threats to the United States and its allies. Thus, the network sabotages American policy, threatens American security, and tightens the noose around the necks of the people we sometimes claim to support.
Red Jihad and Green Revolution
In short, we're facing a global alliance that embraces radical Islamists and radical secular leftists. How can this be? It bumps up against the widespread conviction according to which Islamists hate infidels and leftists despise religion. And yet, there it is. As Laurent Murawiec tells us in the introduction to his masterpiece, The Mind of Jihad (2008), it goes back to the first decades of the last century.
I uncovered a lavish pattern of relations between radical Islam and Soviet communism, starting in the earliest days of Lenin's putsch, and, essentially, never ending. Strangely, this pattern had started with the First World War's "Jihad Made in Germany" before mutating into a Soviet-Muslim affair.
In World War I, the Muslim world sided with the authoritarian Germans in their war against the liberal Anglo-Americans, and after the Allied victory, the jihadis shifted their allegiance to the new totalitarians, whether Italian fascists, German Nazis, or Soviet Bolsheviks, as Murawiec writes, "in succession or simultaneously." All provided grist for the Islamic revolutionaries' ideological mill; not so much doctrinally (the Koran and the prophet's hadiths provided everything required on that front) as organizationally, from the creation of cadre to the manipulation of the modern masses. The 20th-century totalitarian regimes showed the Islamists how to seize power, how to maintain it, and how to destroy their enemies. Stalin was admired because of his purges, and Hitler became a Middle Eastern cult hero (despite his lack of interest in supporting the Islamists) because of the Holocaust and his pseudoscientific racial theories. Above all, the Islamists admired the Western dictators because of their systematic use of terror as a system of power. Murawiec went further still: the theories and practices of "Islamic Revolution" smashed the boundaries between Sunni and Shiite. Shiites like the Iranian Ali Shariati (who inspired many of Khomeini's followers), and Sunnis like Sayyid Qutb (a key figure in the development of the Muslim Brotherhood), alike called for and organized a revolutionary Islamic movement.
If we listen to a 1980 sermon from Ayatollah Montazeri, long considered Khomeini's right arm, we can hear the echoes of 20th-century totalitarian regimes:
The entire nation is coming to the Friday prayers…. All classes come and they have one slogan…based on the faith in God, in Islam…. All kneel down before God…and they follow one leader who stands before them. When he kneels down, all kneel down; when he bows, all bow.
Serious scholars of Islam have long recognized its kinship with political totalitarianism, from the theory of dictatorship to the total control of everything and everybody by the Islamic state. Bernard Lewis has frequently remarked on this feature of Islam, as has one of his critics, Maxime Rodinson, for example in his book Marxism and the Muslim World (1979):
Islam has been totalitarian to an extreme. Indeed, in principle, it dominated every act and every thought of the faithful…. All actions, even those arising out of the most elementary biological needs…were regulated by the ideological system. Even social actions of the kind which other cultures considered outside the realm of religion, be they technical, economic, or artistic, were integrated into the system.
It is hard to know how best to describe this "mind of jihad." Is it a basically Western view of revolution, adapted to the theocratic requirements of Muslim leaders? Is it instead a form of Islam that has been permeated by ideas of class struggle, anti-imperialism, and the like? Some scholars insist, along with the Islamists, that the faith is immutable, essentially the same today as in centuries past.
However we choose to speak of it, any credible analysis must reflect the post-war theories that spoke of totalitarianism as a surrogate religion, in which traditional rituals of the sort Montazeri described in his sermon were translated into political rituals of the sort we see in the Nazi film Triumph of the Will. In like manner, the jihadis involved in the global anti-American alliance practice a religion that has fully appropriated radical politics.
It does not much matter to them if the political radicalism comes from the Right or the Left; both have been embraced by jihadi leaders, sometimes in the life of a single leader, such as the infamous grand mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al Husseini. The mufti is best known as Hitler's favorite Muslim, a friend of Adolf Eichmann, an enthusiastic visitor to Auschwitz (whose technology he wanted to bring to Palestine in order to kill even more Jews), and a Nazi enthusiast. But before he became a camp follower of Hitler and Mussolini, the mufti-to-be was an active Communist who instructed the Pan-Arab nationalist movement, as Murawiec puts it, "in the fine arts of Communist agitprop, the conveyer of crucial Marxist-Leninist concepts such as ‘imperialism' and ‘colonialism.'" And he reminds us that "most of the ugly repertoire of modern Arab and Muslim anti-Semitism came from the Soviet Union (with only the racial-biological component added by the Nazis)."
So we shouldn't be surprised to see Iranian Shiite revolutionaries or their trained murderous disciples from the Syrian-Lebanese Hezbollah, and the Sunni terrorists from Islamic Jihad, fighting side by side with radical leftists from Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, or alongside Russian special forces. That current Middle Eastern bestseller, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, came originally from Russian presses, after all.
Both of the principal components of the enemy alliance—Islamists and radical leftists—seem, at least for the moment, quite comfortable in their own doctrinal bodies, and happy to cooperate as such people have in the past. This is not merely a tactical alliance of convenience; it is based on a large bundle of shared beliefs and passions, the toxic ingredients of modern totalitarianism. It's far more than an alliance held together by the conviction that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The alliance makes good ideological sense.
In addition to their embrace of "revolution," their acceptance of a world view that stresses class conflict, identification of America and Israel as their two great enemies, and hatred of the Jews, there is one other core conviction that binds the leftists and the jihadis: the belief that history, as we have known it, is coming to an end, and the world will soon be fundamentally changed. To be sure, the instrument for that profound change is quite different: the Islamists are working for the Mahdi (or, in the Shiite version, the 12th imam) to lead them to victory over the infidels, while the leftists are organizing the world revolution against the hated capitalists, imperialists, and bourgeoisie. But this difference in prophecy is easily resolved, at least for the moment, in the common struggle against us.
Changing the World
The internal conflicts within the enemy alliance may offer us opportunities to exploit (there are plenty of Islamists who abhor the godless leftists, and lots of secular radicals who despise the religious fanatics), but such tactical strokes can be delivered only once we see the alliance plain, meet the challenge of the alliance with a view to an American grand strategy, and resolve to win the war now being waged against us. We seem to be quite far from such considerations. Instead of seeing the global battlefield, we consider each theater separately—yesterday Iraq, Egypt, and Libya, today Iran and Syria, with little attention to Latin America. This type of perspective, one our current administration seems to hold, is naïve and dangerous.
The necessary perspective is one that acknowledges that we face a global alliance which relentlessly seeks to exploit any and all of our vulnerabilities (both perceived and real) around the world. Its members have and will continue to do this from Iraq to Afghanistan, Africa, Yemen, Somalia, and all over Latin America. As mentioned previously, the evidence is blatant and overwhelming. Why is it so challenging to see the truth? It is not easy to accept that such an alliance, one so dedicated and far reaching, exists. It is especially not easy to accept this and see an easy or quick way forward in the aftermath of more than a decade of war. Media commentators are all too fond of citing the war weariness in our country. But that current complaint does not take into account what a strategic conflict with the alliance could or would truly look like. For starters, let me suggest that an acceptance of the threat we face does not mean that we must wage all out war: far from it. If we were to at least attempt to formulate a grand strategy to combat this alliance, one utilizing all our strengths, the battle we wage can be grounded in a war of ideas, with our military superiority providing only background and a sense of seriousness in pursuit of large and long-term global national security objectives.
As we grope toward understanding and then toward a winning strategy, one lesson from the Cold War should shape our thinking. We long debated the nature of our enemy. Were we fighting a Communist mass movement, or a traditional empire, commanded from Moscow? Should we concentrate our efforts on "the war of ideas" or on militarily containing the empire? I am not sure we ever answered those important questions, but when the Soviet Empire fell, Communism's mass appeal was dealt a severe blow.
Messianic movements, whether explicitly religious or seemingly secular and "scientific," read history's tea leaves for proof that their efforts are blessed. No matter if the blessings come from the god of the dialectic or Allah, victory today confirms belief in the glory of tomorrow. Defeat thus opens fissures within the ranks, for they ask themselves, and their leaders, whether and why the cause has been abandoned by the Prime Mover. Jihadis recruit well when bin Laden strikes America, but there are fewer candidates for cannon fodder when al-Qaeda is smashed in Iraq, or the Taliban routed from its seats of power in Afghanistan. We have many opportunities, and these will expand if we are able to demonstrate that we can defeat the global alliance. The central element is clearly Iran: the Islamic Republic's downfall would change the world.