Perhaps the most discussed passage in Barack Obama's Inaugural Address was his peace offering to dictators and leaders of rogue states.
"To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent," he said, "know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."
The man who had campaigned on direct meetings with rogue leaders "without preconditions" appeared to be toughening his approach just a little. The words were conciliatory and intended to signal a shift from the Bush administration, but he added a condition.
The next day Bill Neely of Britain's ITV News reported the response from the leadership in Iran. "Obama's is the hand of Satan in a new sleeve," explained Hossein Shariatmadari, spokesman for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader. "The Great Satan now has a black face." Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wasn't impressed either. "If it's like the past and America is bullying us then there will be no new era between us," he said.
Obama has spent the intervening eight months attempting to convince Ahmadinejad and Iran's clerical leadership that he is not a bully. Despite these efforts--and in some ways because of them--the Iranian leadership remains firmly in power, more radical and more dangerous than ever. The Obama administration's short history of relations with Iran is a picture of weakness.
On March 19, in a videotaped peace greeting, Obama offered best wishes on the celebration of Nowruz--the Iranian New Year--to "the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran." Obama spoke of a "season of new beginnings" and said
My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community. This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.
In a speech the following day, Khamenei dismissed Obama's overture. "Change in words is not enough, although we have not seen change in words, either." He accused Obama of following the "crooked ways" of George W. Bush.
The Obama administration's response was to step up its efforts. In an early April meeting with European diplomats in London, Undersecretary of State William Burns formally declared that the United States would participate in face-to-face talks with the Iranians, and the P5+1 negotiating group (made up of the permanent members of the Security Council and Germany) conveyed the invitation to Tehran. There was no response. So in early May, Obama wrote a letter directly to Khamenei to express his desire for an amicable resolution of the disagreements over Iran's nuclear program and an end to the decades of hostility between Iran and the United States.
Still no response, though later that month, Iran tested a solid-fuel rocket capable of hitting Israel and the U.S. bases in the Middle East. Although Iranian leaders have long claimed that their nuclear program is peaceful, Ahmadinejad celebrated the successful test at a campaign rally by declaring:
In the nuclear case, we send them a message: Today the Islamic Republic of Iran is running the show. We say to the superpowers, "Who of you dare to threaten the Iranian nation? Raise your hand!" But they all stand there with their hands behind their backs.
And that is precisely what Obama did when the Iranian regime brutally put down protests that had arisen following the rigged presidential elections on June 12. He initially refused to condemn the crackdown to avoid upsetting the Iranian regime. Only after international broadcasts began running the grisly scenes from the streets of Tehran on a loop, and following strong denunciations from several European leaders, did Obama speak out against the escalating violence. Still, the White House never supported the courageous opposition leaders for fear of "meddling" and never challenged the bogus results of the election. (At one point, in response to a question about whether the U.S. government recognizes Ahmadinejad as the legitimate leader of Iran, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said: "He's the elected leader." After the outcry, Gibbs amended his statement.)
The Iranian regime did not appreciate the forbearance. In his first public speech after the disputed election, Khamenei falsely claimed that Obama had been supporting the Iranian opposition and wondered how he could reconcile the hostility towards Iran with the conciliatory letter of May.
Throughout the summer, the Iranian regime arrested, persecuted, and in some cases killed the vocal critics of the sham elections. The Obama administration said little and continued to insist that the United States wanted to engage Iran.
Iran finally answered the invitation for talks on September 9--five months after it was first proffered. The response--two days after Ahmadinejad declared that his country "will never negotiate" on nuclear weapons--was almost farcical. The ten-page document offered to talk about a wide variety of issues, including "elevating the weight and position of environmental issues in the international relations" and the "enhancement of ethical and human considerations and their full observance in international mechanisms, ties and practices." Conspicuously absent from the response was any mention of the issue that the proposed negotiations were called to address: Iran's nuclear program.
The fist was still clenched, and the Obama administration clasped it anyway. "We'll be looking to see if they are willing to engage seriously on these issues," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, without obvious irony. The meeting is set for October 1.
Last week, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, a top press adviser to Ahmadinejad, was asked about news reports that the United States had offered to sell Iran Boeing planes as a gesture of goodwill. He mocked the reported overture:
He added that Obama "is held captive by extremist Republicans and has been very unsuccessful with keeping George Bush's ideas out of the White House."
The offer for an economic deal such as selling Boeing planes with the aim of establishing bilateral ties is derived from an inhuman and materialistic view towards other nations. We consider no value and nobility for such relations.
Obama's kindheartedness is dangerous. It requires his administration to ignore an uncomfortable fact: Iran is the world's foremost state sponsor of terror and its regime is committed to killing Americans in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
For years Iran has been providing lethal aid to terrorists in Iraq. Brigadier General Kevin Bergner extensively detailed this support in a press briefing in July 2007. The Qods Force of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, in particular, provides weapons and training to a variety of terrorist organizations--or "special groups"--operating in Iraq:
Funding and training of the special groups started in 2004. The Qods Force supplies special groups with EFPs, machine guns, rockets, sniper rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and IEDs. Iraqi special groups are trained in one of three training camps inside Iran and are operated by the Qods Force and supported by Lebanese Hezbollah operatives.
Bergner added: "Our intelligence reveals that senior leadership in Iran is aware of this activity."
Former CIA director Michael Hayden was equally blunt in a speech at Kansas State in May 2008. "It is the policy of the Iranian government, approved to the highest levels of that government, to facilitate the killing of Americans in Iraq."
And earlier this year, Lieutenant General Austin Lloyd, the second-ranking U.S. military official in Iraq, said that U.S. forces had continued to find caches of Iranian-made weapons. He said the discoveries "lead us to believe that Iranian support activity is still ongoing."
The support for terrorists in Iraq is well known, but Iranian mullahs' support for terrorists in Afghanistan has been less publicized.
In February, Dennis Blair, the new director of national intelligence, provided answers to a long list of questions from the Senate Intelligence Committee. In July, the Federation of American Scientists released a copy of Blair's answers that it had obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The report has garnered surprisingly little attention considering the explosive claims Blair made. On page 12, he addressed the deadly role Iran is playing in Afghanistan--supporting the Afghan government and the insurgents that seek to bring it down. This support for insurgents--Blair calls it "lethal aid"--means that Iranian weapons are being used against American soldiers and their NATO counterparts.
Among the disturbing findings:
Iran has both long-term strategic and short-term tactical interests in Afghanistan and is not content with merely maintaining the status quo. In the short term, Iran is primarily concerned with preserving its national security and undermining Western influence in Afghanistan, which provides Iran's rationale for providing select Afghan insurgents with lethal aid. . . . Iran has not altered its activities in Afghanistan over the past year as various Iranian officials describe the Western presence as an occupation and Iran maintains a hostile relationship with the West. Iran's policy calculation in Afghanistan currently emphasizes lethal support to the Taliban, even though revelation of this activity could threaten its future relationship with the Afghan government and its historic allies within Afghanistan.
Iran is covertly supplying arms to Afghan insurgents while publicly posing as supportive of the Afghan government. Shipments typically include small arms, mines, rocket propelled grenades (RPGs), rockets, mortars, and plastic explosives. Taliban commanders have publicly credited Iranian support for their successful operations against Coalition forces. [Emphasis added]
On August 29, U.S. forces discovered a large cache of Iranian-made weapons in Afghanistan. According to the report by Fox News Pentagon correspondent Jennifer Griffin, the cache included a large amount of C-4 explosives, Iranian-made rockets, and EFPs--the "explosively formed penetrators" that Iran has been supplying to terrorists in Iraq. Sources also told Griffin that an Iranian-made rocket had been fired recently at a U.S. base in Herat.
Iran continues to enrich uranium, it continues to support terrorists, and it continues to suppress political opposition. None of that is surprising. What is hard to understand is the fact that Iran continues to dictate the agenda of international talks. Ahmadinejad is right, the Islamic Republic is running the show.
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.