Keeping an eye on Rouhani.

Photographer: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Iran's Peace Letter from a Poison Pen

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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In case you haven't heard, peace is about to break out in the Middle East.

I realize it doesn't look like that from the headlines: The government just fell in Yemen; Islamic State forces are threatening U.S. Marines in Iraq's Anbar Province; Hezbollah is vowing revenge against Israel for killing the son of one of their beloved mass murderers.

But then there is Iran. Thirty-six years after the Islamic Revolution, the mullahs may finally be warming up to the Great Satan. On Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, sent a letter recently to President Barack Obama saying he was open to a more direct alliance against the Islamic State, if negotiators could iron out a deal on Tehran's nuclear program. Khamenei has even said publicly he was open to a deal. Secretary of State John Kerry has been meeting with his counterpart, Javad Zarif. The meetings! The channels! The back channels! Diplomacy!

It's the kind of thing that gets the hearts of our Iran-watchers palpitating. Over the years, Iran has sent a string of envoys to meet with Westerners to explain that their country's war against the U.S., Israel, Sunni monarchies, ethnic minorities, gays, journalists and dissidents is all a big misunderstanding. Deep down, many of Iran's leaders just want peace, these emissaries say, but they always end up getting undermined by the hardliners. Now, the hardliner of all hardliners, the supreme leader himself, is talking about peace too. And he's even suggesting an alliance against a common foe. Any day now, he will lead the crowd in chants of "Life to America!"

All of this is tempting. The U.S. has little to show for its on-again-off-again war against Iran, and the two nations' interests should be aligned in the war on terrorism that began after Sept. 11, 2001. The Sunni Islamists of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State consider the Shiites who run Iran to be apostates of the true faith. Iran has been fighting them in Syria and now is fighting them in Iraq. Why can't bygones be bygones?

But before declaring Iran's president his generation's Gorbachev, it's worth considering some bad news. To start, Iran has had an opportunistic relationship with al-Qaeda over the years, despite the whole apostasy problem. A year ago, the Treasury Department laid a lot of this out in a designation about al-Qaeda's network in Iran. Terrorist operatives based in Mashhad, near Iran's border with Afghanistan, were allowed to facilitate the transfer of al-Qaeda fighters from Pakistan to Syria through Iranian territory. After 9/11, Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, cut a deal with Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps to allow family members to live in Iran while they moved from Afghanistan to Pakistan. Iran was also a key base in the last decade for al-Qaeda operatives such as Saif al-Adel, who was kept under a house arrest so loose he was able to write a semi-regular Internet column and help plan al-Qaeda's war against the Iraqi government.

OK, opportunistic relationships can change. FDR and Stalin were allies against the Nazis, but after the Third Reich collapsed, the U.S. and the Soviet Union fought a cold war. Why can't Iran and America be new allies in a war against the Islamic State? In many ways they already are.

The problem is: Iran really loves terrorism. Since 1979, it has used terrorism as a tool of statecraft like no other nation. In his testimony Thursday before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Nick Rasmussen, the head of the National Counterterrorism Center, said Iran and Hezbollah "remain committed to conducting terrorist activities worldwide and we are concerned their activities could either endanger or target U.S. and other Western interests."

Iran's leaders have been implicated in terrorist attacks in South America, Europe and the Middle East. The Justice Department in 2011 accused Iran of attempting to kill Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington at a popular Georgetown restaurant, Cafe Milano. For the Islamic Republic to give up its predilection for terror would require a cultural revolution inside its defense establishment. What would the Quds Force be without car bombers and kidnapping? 

Some might argue that the 2013 election of President Hassan Rouhani, a supposed reformer, signifies just this kind of change. But there is little evidence he is opening up Iranian society. State executions of gays and arrests of dissidents continue. Even though Rouhani tweeted in 2013 a Jewish New Year message to his followers on Twitter, the regime remains steeped in ugly anti-Semitism. In response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris last month, a cultural center in Iran with close ties to the regime announced a Holocaust cartoon contest. Despite Rouhani's campaign promises, the leaders of the country's green movement, the people who took to the streets to protest the 2009 elections, remain under house arrest or brutal detention in the country's prisons. If Iran is unwilling to stop terrorizing its own people, why should anyone think it will stop terrorizing the citizens of its historic enemies?

And this gets to the most important argument as to why an alliance with Iran is a recipe for more war. Iran has been a partner of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as his troops continue to massacre his own people, causing a death toll conservatively estimated to be north of 129,000. In Yemen, Iran-supported Houthi rebels drove the Obama administration this week to shutter its embassy and CIA station in Sana'a, setting back a crucial war against al-Qaeda's Yemen affiliate. Iran-supported militias in Iraq threaten the Sunni Arab population, driving many potential Sunni allies into the arms of the terrorists. Iran's participation in a coalition against Islamic State forces, while seemingly helpful, threatens to turn a fight against a terrorist group into a bloody, regional sectarian war.

It's hard to know exactly what kind of deal, if any, will emerge from Iran's nuclear negotiations in Geneva with the U.S. and other great powers. But if Obama believes he can purchase Iranian counter-terrorism cooperation with concessions on its nuclear program, he is paying Iran twice and getting very little in return.

It's also possible that Khamenei's messages have been lost in translation. With apologies to Mel Brooks, it could be that when Iran's supreme leader said he wanted "peace," he meant: a piece of Yemen, a piece of Iraq, a piece of Syria, a piece of Gaza, a piece of Lebanon. You get the picture. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net