With America's global attention largely focused elsewhere, Iran continues to expand its military capabilities – legally and otherwise – forcing the question of what Washington and its regional allies plan to do about it.
Iran's military expansionism of late encompasses a host of activities: pursuing illegal means to expand its nuclear and ballistic missile technology and expertise; continuing to test its longer range and increasingly sophisticated ballistic missile; and building underground facilities in Lebanon to manufacture missiles and other weapons for its most powerful terrorist client Hezbollah.
This expansionism is boosting the capacity of Iran, a Shiite nation, to threaten Israel and the region's U.S.-backed Sunni states – most notably Saudi Arabia – raising the stakes for a U.S. administration that has wisely discarded President Barack Obama's efforts at U.S.-Iranian rapprochement but not yet enunciated a comprehensive alternative.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently articulated the broad elements of a strategy: "Our policy towards Iran," he told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in response to a question, "is to push back on [its regional] hegemony, contain their ability to develop, obviously, nuclear weapons and to work towards support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government."
The question now is whether Tillerson was speaking for an administration that agrees on those elements and, if so, whether it is serious enough to put the building blocks of a comprehensive strategy in place – e.g., a close monitoring of Iranian compliance with the 2015 global nuclear agreement; greater U.S. economic sanctions in response to both Iran's violations as well as its continuing terror-related efforts; closer U.S. military cooperation with its regional allies to counter Iran's hegemonic ambitions; and a serious effort to engage with an Iranian populace that, to a great extent, finds the regime repugnant and yearns for more freedom and democracy.
In three recent reports, German intelligence and other authorities have revealed that Tehran is working to illegally acquire technology and expertise to advance both its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The reports revealed, for instance, that three German citizens were charged in connection with "the deliveries of 51 special valves to an Iranian company" that Iran could use for its Arak heavy water reactor – a reactor that can develop plutonium for nuclear weapons and that Iran was supposed to dismantle under the nuclear agreement. They also revealed that Iran was seeking the "products and scientific know-how" to develop "weapons of mass destruction as well [as] missile technology."
Meanwhile, Tehran dismissed Friday's call by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon that it stop its ballistic missile testing that he said violates the spirit of the nuclear agreement. That's because Iran is testing missiles that could carry a nuclear warhead, reinforcing concerns that – despite its statements to the contrary – it plans to pursue nuclear weapons either by violating the agreement or waiting until it expires over the next decade or so.
While continuing to test missiles of increasing range and sophistication, Tehran also revealed recently that it is building a third underground ballistic missile production facilityto further its program.
Along with manufacturing weapons for its own use, Tehran is also building facilities in Lebanon to make weapons in conjunction with Hezbollah, a key Iranian terrorist proxy that continues to threaten Israel from across its northern border. That move comes in response to Israeli bombing of weapons factories in Sudan and supply routes through Syria for Iranian rocket shipments to Hezbollah.
From one factory in northern Lebanon, Iran is manufacturing the Fateh 110 missile that, with a range of about 190 miles, can threaten most of Israel. From another factory in southern Lebanon, it's making smaller weapons. Hezbollah, which had about 15,000 fairly unsophisticated rockets when it went to war with Israel in 2006, now has an estimated 150,000 rockets of increasing range and accuracy.
All told, Tehran's expanding military capabilities present a growing threat to Washington's allies in Jerusalem, Riyadh and elsewhere, raising the prospect that, at some point, an emboldened Iran or Hezbollah will launch a war or a defensive Israel will take pre-emptive military action to reduce the threats.
Either way, an administration that never shared Obama's naive notion of bribing Tehran into moderation with some $100 billion or more of sanctions relief under the nuclear agreement now needs to take the next step – to fashion a comprehensive strategy that confronts the odious regime while putting its moral authority behind the millions of Iranians who would like nothing more than to topple it.