The Shoe on the Other Foot

by , October 23, 2009

Last Sunday, Iran became a victim of terrorism when a bombing in Sistan-Baluchestan province killed 42 people, including six members of the elite Revolutionary Guards. The irony, of course, is that Iran is often accused of fomenting terrorism, because of its ties to Hezbollah. And in a not unexpected role reversal, the regime in Tehran has accused the United States and Great Britain of having ties to the bombers – a Sunni insurgent group, Jundallah, has claimed responsibility (Jundallah also claimed responsibility for the bombing of a mosque in Zahedan, capital of Sistan-Baluchestan, that killed 25 people in May) – and vows retaliation. And just as the Iranians have steadfastly denied accusations of complicity with terrorist attacks, particularly in neighboring Iraq, the United States and Britain have condemned the attacks and denied any involvement. “We reject in the strongest terms any assertion that this attack has anything to do with Britain,” said a spokeswoman at Britain’s Foreign Office. “Terrorism is abhorrent wherever it occurs.”

Lessons in irony aside, there are a few things we should learn, if we haven’t already.

To begin, this bombing should drive home the fact that the Muslim world is anything but monolithic. There are very real differences between Sunnis and Shi’ites, for instance. So to lump all Muslims together – even radical Muslims willing to engage in terrorism – would be a mistake. Unfortunately, because certain elements within the Islamic world have expressed animosity toward the United States, the post-9/11 tendency has been to cast a wide net and assume they are all the same threat. But just because Osama bin Laden and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have both spewed anti-American rhetoric does not make them best friends or allies (any more than bin Laden was a friend or ally of Saddam Hussein).

And to the extent that the United States has a problem with its relations with the Muslim world, understanding that there are differences means that a one-size-fits-all policy will not work. But we do need to recognize the common thread of U.S. military interventionism and meddling in the internal affairs of Muslim countries as a basis for anti-American sentiment among Muslims.

The bombing also illustrates that there is a schism within Islam dating back to its very origins and that what is often characterized as a war against America or the West is really part of a civil war within the Muslim world. Indeed, Jundallah claims it is fighting for the rights of minority Sunnis in Iran. In turn, Iran has accused Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda of being in league with Jundallah. The important lesson is not to insert ourselves into what amounts to a domestic dispute, because that inevitably makes us a target – something Ronald Reagan learned in Lebanon in the 1980s. He wisely decided that U.S. interests were better served by sitting on the sidelines.

Moreover, not all radical Muslims or Islamic terrorists are necessarily threats to the United States. Jundallah is a Sunni group, like al-Qaeda, but it’s not anti-American. Elements of al-Qaeda and the Taliban are local problems in Afghanistan, but they don’t have the global reach to attack the United States. And groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas target Israel but are not direct threats to America. This doesn’t mean we should condone terrorism, but we should also not make enemies out of terrorist groups that don’t endanger us.

Finally, the Jundallah bombing should give us reason to question the logic that a regime (such as Iran) that acquires nuclear weapons will automatically give them to terrorists (such as Hezbollah). Why? Because terrorist groups have and act on their own agenda. That agenda may overlap with a given state’s, but that state does not exert complete and total control over the terrorist group. It’s one thing to supply terrorists with small arms or conventional bomb-making materials and have a fig leaf of plausible deniability if the group stages an otherwise unwanted attack. But there would be no believing any denials if a nuclear device were detonated. And however devastating setting off a single nuclear weapon would be, it would pale in comparison to the destruction a U.S. retaliation of hundreds, if not thousands, of warheads would cause. So unless a regime is suicidal, it will not risk its own destruction by blithely giving away a nuke to a group it doesn’t control.

Read more by Charles V. Peña