Just what does Iran have to do in order to get the attention of the United States? That question must be on the minds of officials in Tehran these days. After all, their regime has embarked upon an audacious -- and very public -- strategic offensive throughout the greater Middle East. But officials in Washington, preoccupied with flagging poll numbers and the ongoing insurgency in Iraq, don't seem to be taking notice.
Signs of Iranian troublemaking are everywhere. In Iraq, Coalition forces have confirmed an Iranian hand in a January attack in Karbala that claimed the lives of five American servicemen. The assault, U.S. officials say, was carried out by members of Lebanon's Hezbollah militia, who were "working in Iraq as a surrogate" for the Iranian regime's feared Quds Force paramilitary unit. Hezbollah also has reportedly become a "proxy" for the Islamic Republic, helping to smuggle Iranian-made weapons onto the territory of the former Ba'athist state and distribute them to Shi'ite militants fighting the United States and its allies.
In Afghanistan too, Iran's influence is on the rise. Officials in the government of President Hamid Karzai are said to be deeply concerned about Iran's extensive -- and growing -- political clout. They have good reason to be; Coalition officials have uncovered a steady stream of weaponry flowing to anti-government forces across Afghanistan's western border, more likely than not with Tehran's official approval.
Iran is putting the squeeze on Kabul in another way as well. Since this spring, Tehran has launched a major clampdown on Afghan nationals, expelling more than 40,000 migrants in what observers say is at least partly a bid to bolster the strength of the Islamist forces fighting the Karzai government next door. As one international aid official told the Asia Times recently, the forced repatriation of Afghan refugees "naturally will fuel the Taliban insurgency."
And in the Palestinian Authority, the Hamas movement's recent hostile takeover of the Gaza Strip was made possible in no small part by the Islamic Republic. According to Mohammad Dahlan, the former security chief for the ousted Fatah faction, Hamas' "coup" was enabled (and possibly encouraged) by Iran, which provided the terrorist group with some $400 million in funds over the past year-and-a-half -- money that was instrumental in helping it outflank and outfight Fatah. "Our people are the victims of regional and international meddling in our affairs," Dahlan fumed.
This activism has been fueled by Iran's nuclear advances. Four years after the world became aware of their ambitious national effort to acquire an atomic capability, Iran's ayatollahs are still making major progress. Since late May, the International Atomic Energy Agency has been warning that -- despite two rounds of international sanctions so far -- Iran is beginning to enrich uranium on a far larger scale than ever before. The regime in Tehran, in other words, is getting closer to the "bomb," and in the process both it and its terrorist proxies are growing bolder.
So far, Washington has barely begun to formulate a response. President Bush may have warned repeatedly that the United States "will not tolerate" the emergence of a nuclear Iran. As a practical matter, however, the White House is not doing anything serious to stop such a turn of events. Rather, it has contented itself with trying to contain Iran's nuclear progress diplomatically, via the United Nations -- a process that, quite predictably, has not yielded any significant results, since UN action is dependent on the support of two of Iran's major strategic partners, Russia and China.
As for confronting Iran's destabilizing role in the region, America is doing even less. Since late May, the U.S. State Department has broken a long-standing taboo by engaging Tehran in direct dialogue in an effort to solicit its help with in dealing with the ongoing insurgency in Iraq -- an insurgency that Iran itself has played a major part in perpetuating.
All of which goes a long way toward explaining why the Iranian regime today has become convinced that the United States has neither the ability nor the inclination to mount a serious challenge to its strategic ambitions. More to the point, it understands full well that the time for America to prove them wrong -- through a serious strategy that confronts and contains Iran's nuclear ambitions, and punishes the Islamic Republic for its regional rogue behavior -- is running out.