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The war is getting closer

Click photo to download. Caption: Iran's Raad air defense system. Credit: M-ATF via Wikimedia Commons.
Click photo to download. Caption: Iran's Raad air defense system. Credit: M-ATF via Wikimedia Commons.

The most recent Republican presidential debate was a breath of fresh air on the terrorism challenge that is front and center in American politics right now.

To begin with, it was heartening to see Jeb Bush, whose quest to secure the nomination is all but over, remind Americans that he can be a clear and insightful thinker and leader. As he lambasted Donald Trump for the latter’s stupid and bigoted proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States, Bush pointed out a few indubitable truths, most importantly concerning the Kurds.

“We need to arm directly the Kurds,” Bush said. “The Kurds are the greatest fighting force and our strongest allies.”

Then came a fairly obvious point of information, but you can legitimately wonder whether Trump was in fact of aware of it.

“They’re Muslim,” Bush added helpfully regarding the Kurds, as he advanced the broader argument that defeating Islamist terrorism means we need to cement existing allies in the Muslim world, and make new ones. The Kurdish struggle for self-determination and against Islamist extremism hasn’t exactly been appreciated by the Obama administration, and it was good to hear a Republican underscore why that needs to change (and why it won’t if the catastrophe that would be a Trump nomination comes to pass).

Then there was the small matter of Iran and its ally, the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. To listen to the Obama administration’s rhetoric in the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino massacres, you would never know that the mullahs running Iran have played a central role in the rise of Islamic State. Not so with the Republican frontrunners.

“Assad is a puppet of Iran,” said Marco Rubio, who then explained that the Syrian tyrant’s brutality towards Sunni Arabs “led to the chaos which allowed ISIS to come in and take advantage of that situation and grow more powerful.” There was also Chris Christie, who said, “We need to focus our attention on Iran, because if you miss Iran, you are not going to get ISIS. The two are inextricably connected because one causes the other.” Indeed, the only candidate who hasn’t grasped the deadly dynamic between Iran and ISIS is Trump, who made it clear that he regards Russia, Iran, and Assad as allies against ISIS and cautioned that we can only do “one thing at a time.”

The overriding consideration here should be that, currently, we are not doing very much at all. You might think that we are in a position to strike a death blow at ISIS, given how its corridor between Mosul and Raqqa has been disrupted in recent weeks—but we are not. As for Iran, America is finally leading from the front, but not in a good way. On Dec. 17, Secretary of State John Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Iran is fulfilling its obligations under the JCPOA, the nuclear deal reached last summer, in a “transparent” and “verifiable” way. As a result, the Tehran regime can look forward to the lifting of sanctions as early as January.

What about the inconvenient fact that Iran was deemed by a United Nations panel to have violated U.N. Security Council resolutions when it tested, back in October, a ballistic missile that is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead? That won’t overly trouble the Obama administration, which is determined to keep the JCPOA operational regardless of what Iran actually does. Indeed, in a speech to the Atlantic Council, Adam Szubin, acting under secretary for terrorism, played down any hopes that Iranian violations of the agreement, as well as wider actions that destabilize the region, would result in the reimposition of sanctions. “Our first impulse isn’t going to be put sanctions in place,” Szubin asserted. “It’s going to be to get Iran to immediately address it. It’s the path that is greatly in our interest.”

The Iranians have the same understanding of the word “interest” in this context. The October missile test, said Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan, was meant “to tell the world that the Islamic Republic of Iran acts on the basis of its national interest.” In plainer language, Dehghan was essentially saying that Iran can do what it wants—and why, given the Obama administration’s record thus far, would it act with greater prudence and propriety?

For the last four years, Syria has been the main arena in which Iran has pursued its goal of regional dominance. With Western countries now paralyzed—sometimes literally so—by the thought of further ISIS atrocities, Iran has wasted no time in playing the situation to its advantage. In the last couple of weeks, there have been rumors flying around that Iran was actually in retreat from Syria. Yet the reverse is true; the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps is getting ready to deploy fighter aircraft in Syria on Assad’s behalf.

What this represents is a direct threat to Israel, whose air force has already been compelled to engage in occasional strikes against the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah. While a global crisis was just about averted after the Turks shot down on a Russian jet in the border area with Syria, we might not be so lucky in the event of a clash between Israeli and Iranian fighter planes.

For that reason, it’s not enough to close our eyes and wish we could fast forward to a new U.S. administration in January 2017. In the year between now and then, much can happen—will happen—unless the Iranians are told clearly to back off, with the consequences of not doing so unambiguously laid out. For years, President Obama told us that “all options” were on the table in dealing with Iran. He has not, so far as I am aware, backed down on that formula, which now needs to be revived in the Syrian theater. Because if it isn’t, the atrocities, the refugee outflows, and the spread of deadly Islamist ideology will reach new heights.

Some readers may find the suggestion that Obama should now tell the Iranians that further escalation in Syria will result in a reimposition of sanctions, or even military action, to be naive, ridiculous, absurd, and all sorts of other adjectives. Maybe. But, as is often said, you go to war with the army you have. And the war is getting closer.

Ben Cohen, senior editor of & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014). 

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