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Clifford D. MayClifford D. MayJuly 10, 201710min891
Clifford D. May
Clifford D. May

Eleven years ago this month, Israel went to war with Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanon-based Shi’a proxy militia. The fighting began when Hezbollah fired rockets at Israeli villages and missiles at Israeli armored vehicles patrolling the border. Three Israeli soldiers were killed. Two were kidnapped and taken into Lebanon.

They would be among the more than a thousand people killed during the 34 days that followed. Hundreds of thousands, in both countries, would be displaced.

The passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 on August 11 marked a halt to the conflict. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was expanded and granted the authority to use force to ensure that southern Lebanon became free of “any armed personnel, assets and weapons” not under the direct control of the Lebanese government or UNIFIL.

It soon became apparent that UNIFIL would fail to accomplish that mission. Today, Hezbollah has an estimated 150,000 missiles of varying ranges and accuracy pointing at Israeli villages and cities – about ten times what it had in 2006. UNIFIL sees nothing, knows nothing and, of course, does nothing.

There has been one restraint on Hezbollah’s rearmament: Israeli intelligence sometimes learns of Iranian shipments of advanced missiles. Airstrikes have destroyed at least some of these shipments en route.

Now, however, Iran has a new plan: Over recent months, its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has been building fortified, underground missile production factories in Lebanon.

“We are fully aware” of the factories, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman told military correspondents in a briefing in Tel Aviv on Sunday. “We know what needs to be done. …We won’t ignore the establishment of Iranian weapons factories in Lebanon.”

For the moment, the Israelis are giving diplomacy a chance, for example by briefing members of the U.N. Security Council, warning that the next war is bound to be more destructive and bloodier than the last.

Among the reasons: Hezbollah’s presence now extends well beyond southern Lebanon. It has taken control of Beirut’s port and airfields. It is the most powerful faction in Lebanon’s government. To fight Hezbollah while sparing Lebanon is no longer possible.

In addition, Hezbollah’s leaders have installed their missiles in (and under) homes, schools, hospitals and mosques. Their use of “human shields” ensures a high civilian death toll and, incidentally, blatantly violates international law. But they are confident that many journalists, U.N. officials and “human rights” groups will reflexively blame Israel, not them and certainly not Iran for the carnage.

Another indication that Hezbollah may be preparing for a new conflict: It has set up observation posts along the Israeli border, claiming these are part of an environmental effort called “Green Without Borders.” Yes, that’s right: We’re to believe that Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah worries about climate change. We’re not to notice that he has specifically mentioned that a leafier Lebanon will provide better cover to his fighters should Israelis return.

A complaint Israel filed at the U.N. was rejected last week.  Spokeswoman Eri Kaneko said the lookout stations and “tree-planting activities” raise no suspicions. “UNIFIL remains vigilant,” she asserted.

It seems odd that Mr. Nasrallah should be eager for renewed hostilities with Israel now, a time when he is deploying fighters in neighboring Syria defending the Assad regime. He may believe that in Lebanon, as in Syria, Hezbollah can be reinforced by foreign fighters. In a speech last month, he threatened to open Lebanon’s borders to tens of thousands of Shia fighters from Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That, too, would be a clear violation of UNSCR 1701 but don’t expect UNIFIL to respond.

The smart money says Hezbollah will do as the rulers of the Islamic Republic of Iran instruct. Their priority is to establish a Shia Crescent — an arc extending from Tehran to the Mediterranean, with Iran controlling Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza as well.

They also are establishing a foothold in Afghanistan and attempting to spread their Islamic Revolution into the Gulf States. Tehran’s theocrats view Kuwait and Bahrain as lost provinces that, in time, must be reclaimed. They view the Saudis and the Emiratis as heretics and enemies.

Iran has begun to establish a version of Hezbollah in Syria as well. Foreign Shia fighters already are being imported for this purpose.

Tough decisions lie ahead. Israelis know that if they strike first, they will be accused of aggression. But if they wait, they may have to absorb more – and more lethal – blows. Their missile defense system is high-tech and robust but it can be overwhelmed. Through intermediaries, the Israelis have reportedly warned Iran’s rulers not to expect to sit safely on the sidelines should a new war erupt.

Trump administration strategists in the National Security Council and Pentagon are not oblivious to the storm clouds gathering on this particular horizon. Among the tools they are considering:  Designating the IRGC a terrorist organization and imposing tough new sanctions on Iran – linked to its support of terrorism and ballistic missile development, not the Iran nuclear deal. That would at least send a shot across the Islamic Republic’s bow.

Also worth considering: Insisting that whatever independent actors remain in the Lebanese government stand up to Hezbollah and replace its armed forces in the south as required under UNSCR 1701. If the Lebanese government isn’t up to the task U.S. assistance should end.

Finally, why not give UNIFIL, which is funded largely by the U.S., new leadership and a reinforced mandate to do the work it hasn’t done over the past 11 years? An effective U.N. peacekeeping effort is not easy to imagine. But what’s the harm in one more try?


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Clifford D. MayClifford D. MayJune 15, 20178min771

In the aftermath of the terrorist atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush drew a line in the sand. “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make,” he announced. “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” Since then, disappointingly if not surprisingly, more than a few nations have straddled that line, providing support to America and America’s enemies alike. Is that because they sympathize with the goals of the terrorists or because they’re afraid of the terrorists or is there some other explanation? It’s not clear. What is: No nation has hedged its bets more egregiously than Qatar.


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Clifford D. MayClifford D. MayJune 8, 20179min610

The slaughter of 22 concert-goers in Manchester May 22 was followed four days later by the murder of 29 Christians traveling by bus to a monastery in the desert south of Cairo. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for both attacks. In an internet video, a masked spokesman denounced the victims — many of them teenage girls, fans of pop singer Ariana Grande — as “crusaders.” As for Egyptian Christians, also known as Copts, they have been described in other Islamic State videos as “our favorite prey.”


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Clifford D. MayClifford D. MayJune 1, 20179min23122
Clifford D. May
Clifford D. May

The Islamic Republic isn’t a democracy, but a theocratic dictatorship

News must be new but it needn’t be surprising. The decidedly unsurprising news out of Iran last week: There was an election (of sorts) and the winner was Hassan Rouhani, the incumbent president. An apparently mild-mannered cleric with a beatific smile, he has presided over Iran for four years — a period of egregious human rights violations, the Iranian-backed slaughter in Syria, the taking of American and other hostages, and increasing support for terrorists abroad. Nevertheless, you’ll see him described in much of the media as a “moderate.”

At most he is a pragmatist, one with a keen sense of how credulous Western diplomats and journalists can be. He knows they won’t judge him based on such quotes as this: “Saying ‘Death to America!’ is easy. We need to express ‘Death to America!’ with action.”

In Iran, the president is not the most powerful figure. That distinction belongs to an unelected “supreme leader.” It is to the supreme leader that all government bodies report — including the 12-member Guardian Council, which approves presidential candidates. This time around, more than 99 percent of those who hoped to run were disqualified because they did not hold politically/religiously correct positions. Women also were excluded.

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has had two supreme leaders. The first was Ruhollah Khomeini, a charismatic cleric with the fiery mien of a biblical prophet. The Carter administration and the mainstream media initially mistook him for a moderate as well. Anyone who had bothered to read what he had been writing since the 1940s would have been aware that he regarded himself as a jihadi and believed that Islam should “conquer the whole world.”

After Ayatollah Khomeini’s death in 1989, Ali Khamenei, who had been president, was appointed supreme leader by the Assembly of Experts, an entity whose members also are selected by the Guardian Council. Based on this it should be clear: Iran’s elections are not open, not free and not fair — even when they are not rigged as they were in 2009.

The New York Times has called Iran’s form of government “undemocratic democracy.” That’s amusingly oxymoronic but not at all precise. I would call it a theocratic dictatorship cleverly marketed to provide the illusion of representative governance. It may be helpful to compare it to the Soviet system in which the Communist Party decided which candidates could run and what elected officials could do. In Iran, substitute mullahs for commissars.

Mr. Rouhani’s main rival in this election was Ebrahim Raisi, who doesn’t pretend to be anything but the hardest of hard-liners. So should those of us concerned by the strategic threat Iran represents feel relieved about the election’s outcome?

A worshipper holds up an anti-U.S. placard during a protest rally against a Bahrain police raid on a town home to prominent Shiite cleric sheikh Isa Qassim, after Friday prayer ceremony in Tehran, Iran, Friday, May 26, 2017. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
A worshipper holds up an anti-U.S. placard during a protest rally against a Bahrain police raid on a town home to prominent Shiite cleric sheikh Isa Qassim, after Friday prayer ceremony in Tehran, Iran, Friday, May 26, 2017. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

On the contrary: As my colleague, former CIA Iran specialist Reuel Marc Gerecht has pointed out, a win by Mr. Raisi would have been the better result because it would have made it more difficult for Western leaders “to deceive themselves about Iran’s intentions.” It also would have increased “the distance between the Iranian people and their overlords.”

Journalists and diplomats who make the case for Mr. Rouhani’s moderation usually point out that he is eager for improved economic relations with the West.  That’s true but his goal, transparently, is to strengthen Iran’s economy, a necessary precondition for building a more powerful military. It’s not just coincidence that the budget of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and missile development program has risen 24 percent this year.

Might a wealthier Iran become complacent? Might it lose its zeal to fight and sacrifice in order to spread its Islamic Revolution? That was what President Obama hoped and what Ayatollah Khamenei fears. To Mr. Rouhani, I suspect, it’s a manageable risk.

During his first term as president Mr. Rouhani’s most significant achievement was concluding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). He and his silver-tongued foreign minister, Javad Zarif, persuaded President Obama to lift sanctions and turn over billions of dollars. Iran’s economy — which had contracted by 6.8 percent in 2013 and 2 percent in 2015 — last year grew by an estimated 6.4 percent. In exchange, Mr. Rouhani promised to delay Iran’s nuclear weapons program — a program whose existence he denies.

What’s next on his to-do list? My guess is that he’ll attempt to widen divisions between the U.S. and the European Union, attract foreign investment and end non-nuclear sanctions — sanctions imposed for the regime’s support of terrorism, violations of human rights and continuing ballistic missile programs.

That last task may prove challenging: After renewing a temporary waiver on U.S. sanctions against Iran’s crude-oil exports, the Trump administration last week slapped several new non-nuclear sanctions on Iran, adding to a list of more than 40 imposed this year.

David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, and my colleague Mark Dubowitz call this the “waive-and-slap approach” — essentially a holding pattern as President Trump’s advisors attempt to work out a comprehensive and coherent Iran policy, one not predicated on the belief that Iran’s rulers can be appeased.

Mr. Trump’s top national security advisors are acutely aware that the ambition of those rulers is to build a new Persian/Islamic empire. Already, Iran controls Lebanon through Hezbollah, its loyal proxy, powerfully influences the Iraqi government, supports Houthi rebels in Yemen and has dispatched its own forces, as well as those of Hezbollah, to defend Bashar al-Assad, its loyal and lethal client, in Syria. Iran and Hezbollah are increasingly penetrating Latin America as well.

On Saturday, around the same time that Mr. Rouhani’s victory was announced, President Trump arrived in Saudi Arabia where the threat posed by such neo-imperialist ambition was the top item on the agenda. That, too, was not just coincidence.


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Clifford D. MayClifford D. MayMay 25, 20178min1307

The nation-state is a relatively new idea — scholars generally trace it back to the 17th century. It has its flaws but has anyone come up with a better approach to world order? A nation-state enjoys sovereignty over its territory. Territories are separated by borders. Securing those borders may require barriers and controlled points of entry.


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Clifford D. MayClifford D. MayMay 11, 20178min931

“I believe that God has planted in every heart the desire to live in freedom.” So said President George W. Bush in 2004. Leave for another day the debate over whether such a belief is more hopeful than realistic. What we do know: Tyrants and terrorists around the world are persecuting, torturing and slaughtering those whose hearts do desire freedom — even the most basic.


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Clifford D. MayClifford D. MayMay 4, 20178min1022

Sometimes international law is ambiguous. Sometimes not. When it comes to murdering civilians and using chemical weapons to get the job done, there are no grey areas, no fuzzy lines, no mitigating circumstances. Such practices are clearly and specifically prohibited under what’s called “the law of war.” That makes Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s dynastic dictator, a war criminal. And it makes Iran his chief accomplice.


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Clifford D. MayClifford D. MayApril 27, 20179min761

On the grounds of the Turkish Embassy facing Massachusetts Ave. in Washington, D.C. is a statue of Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, father of the Republic of Turkey, the nation-state he built from the rubble of the defeated Ottoman Empire and Islamic caliphate. He is wearing a three-piece suit that would look stylish today but he is steely-eyed in a way that is peculiar to early 20th century revolutionaries. He appears to be gazing into the future — a future in which Turkey would be modern, prosperous, secular and democratic.


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Clifford D. MayClifford D. MayApril 13, 20179min830

Whatever happened to Charlie Hebdo? For years, the French satirical magazine threw spit balls at polite society. Its writers and cartoonists particularly delighted in ridiculing religions and pieties. Some people found that amusing and thought-provoking. Others were appalled and offended. Such is life in a free country. Then on Jan. 7, 2015, two French Muslims of Algerian descent broke into Charlie Hebdo’s offices firing automatic weapons and shouting “Allahu akbar!” They killed 12 people including the editor-in-chief. As they left, they proclaimed: “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad!” Their broader message: Under Islamic law (as interpreted by them), insulting or even parodying Islam is forbidden. That law applies not just to Muslims in Islamic states but to everyone everywhere. Those who violate it are to be executed. ...