Across the Middle East, extremist regimes and terrorist groups are rejoicing in the fact that the U.S. presence and reputation in their region is a shadow of what it was just 10 years ago.
Any notion that the worst days of Islamist terrorism are long behind us was brutally shattered at Kabul Airport on Aug. 26, as a terrorist bombing ripped indiscriminately through Afghan civilians and U.S. and other foreign servicemen trying to complete the desperate evacuation of thousands of people for whom Taliban rule represents the most terrible fate.
Gen. H.R. McMaster, a former U.S. national security adviser who served as deputy commander of the international force in Afghanistan, put it succinctly in the hours that followed the bloodshed in Kabul.
“Maybe this moment is the time that we can stop our self-delusion that these groups are separate from one and other and recognize that they are utterly intertwined and interconnected, and what we are seeing is the establishment of a terrorist, jihadist state in Afghanistan,” McMaster, a visceral critic of the U.S. withdrawal strategy pursued by both the Trump and Biden administrations, observed in a BBC interview.
“And all of us will be at much greater risk as a result.”
His underlying argument is that talking up divisions between the Taliban and fellow Islamist fanatics —such as ISIS-K, the Afghan branch of the Da’esh terrorist organization in Iraq and Syria that carried out the Kabul Airport bombing — elides the point that these groups are united in their fundamental worldview. On the ideological front, the late Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s promise of a war against “crusaders and Jews” still holds firm, which means terrorism against Western interests and Western targets, most of whom will be defenseless civilians. It also means, for those unfortunate enough to live under the direct rule of the Islamists, that ordinary Muslims will continue to be their principal and most numerous victims.
The “intertwined” connections described by McMaster inside Afghanistan can be seen in the region more broadly. At the same time that the Taliban have conquered Afghanistan, Iran has appointed a new cabinet composed of men with a direct, personal role in terrorism, torture and other systemic violations of human rights, all of whom have extensive connections with Iran’s regional proxies, like Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The Taliban and Iran
In the past, many analysts have scorned the contention that there could be a strategic connection between the austere Sunni Islam adhered to by the Taliban and the Shi’ite millenarian Islam that defines the Tehran regime. It is also true that the Taliban and the Iranians have come to blows in the distant past, as evidenced in the Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998 following the kidnapping of a group of Iranian diplomats by Taliban fighters.
Even so, what unites them is, in the last analysis, more important than what divides them. Taliban delegations have visited Iran on at least two occasions this year, in January and in July, with the outgoing foreign minister Javad Zarif recently praising their “noble … jihad against the foreign occupiers.”
In part, the Iranians are simply betting on the right horse, correctly deducing that further conflict with the Taliban is unnecessary given that the Taliban are once more the masters of Afghanistan. But more significantly, they share the common goal of banishing the United States and its allies from the region, including the State of Israel and, one assumes, those conservative Gulf Arab states that have made their peace with the Jewish state.
Which brings me back to Iran’s new cabinet. It is not surprising that the Islamic Republic’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi — a sadist who, as a regime prosecutor in the 1980s, supervised beatings, rapes and mass executions of prisoners — would appoint a bunch of thugs to his cabinet. But what is alarming is the silence of Western states on the unmistakable message that this cabinet sends. For this is not an occasion to defer to the principle of not commenting on political appointments in other countries.
Iran’s new defense minister is Ahmad Vahidi, who is returning to the post for the second time in his career, having previously occupied it during the term of the Holocaust-denying former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The vice president for economic development is Mohsen Rezaei, a fierce devotee of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, and the commander for 17 years of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Both Vahidi and Rezaei are fugitives from justice — specifically, for their roles in the July 1994 Iranian-sponsored bombing of the AMIA Jewish Center in the Argentine capital Buenos Aires, the bloodiest act of antisemitic terrorism in more than half a century, in which 85 people lost their lives and more than 300 were wounded. Both of them were among the subjects of six “red notices” that were issued in connection with the AMIA atrocity by Interpol, the international law-enforcement agency, in 2007.
More than a quarter of a century after the AMIA bombing, Vahidi and Rezaei sit in Tehran, secure and stony-faced, serving a daily reminder that justice has never been delivered to those who died or lost their loved ones on that terrible morning in Buenos Aires.
Poking the international community in the eye by placing two terrorists in the cabinet isn’t the ultimate goal here, though. Like all authoritarian states, the Iranian regime enjoys political theater, bloodthirsty rhetoric and the grandstanding that goes with it, but these are a means to an end. Vahidi and Rezaei are in the cabinet because there is a job to do, and Raisi — and behind him, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — has judged that they are the right men to do it.
Across the Middle East and the Islamic world, extremist regimes and terrorist groups are rejoicing in the fact that the U.S. presence and reputation in their region is a shadow of what it was just 10 years ago. They are not wrong; the options of America are largely restricted to diplomacy and sanctions. In that light, there is no reason for the Biden administration to continue its talks with the Iranians in Vienna over their nuclear program unless it wants to look even more gullible in the eyes of America’s Islamist adversaries.
It also needs to review the existing sanctions on Iran and extend these where necessary. Should Vahidi or Rezaei surface as official guests of a U.S. ally — Turkey being the obvious example — then the United States should make its displeasure known.
None of these moves can be said to be game-changers. But they speak to the lack of a broader vision for the Middle East on the part of successive U.S. administrations, save for the ambition of getting out of the region as quickly as possible. As McMaster reminded us amid the carnage of Kabul Airport, the region won’t let us go so easily.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.