Ten years after Sept. 11, the Islamic Republic of Iran constitutes the most serious threat to American national security, and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is the world's most deadly terrorist organization.
Under the leadership of the IRGC, the Iranian regime has waged a low-intensity war on the United States for over 30 years, developing a clandestine nuclear weapons program, producing increasingly advanced ballistic missiles, and sponsoring acts of terrorism abroad. Through its terrorist proxies, Iran has killed Americans — from the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut to the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing to quite possibly September 11th, via the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah and Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah's terrorist mastermind and Iran's liaison with al-Qaeda in the 1990s.
Iran continues to support allied regimes and terrorist surrogates ranging from Bashar al-Assad's Shiite Alawite government in Syria to Hezbollah to the Palestinian Sunni groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, as well as Shiite militias in Iraq, and lately even their erstwhile enemies the Sunni Taliban in Afghanistan.
Unlike al-Qaeda, the Revolutionary Guards have the full support of an oil-rich nation, can travel abroad on diplomatic passports, and can hide their operatives in Iranian embassies all over the world, as they did in the attacks on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992, and the Jewish cultural center there in 1994.
The Guards also have full representation at the United Nations, OPEC and other international bodies. Indeed, a sanctioned Guards commander is currently OPEC's president and will be attending its meetings in Vienna. Iran's foreign minister and nuclear agency head, both of whom are also subject to international sanctions, travel regularly to meetings in Geneva, Vienna and New York. The U.S. and the European Union, which pass travel bans to great fanfare, ignore them completely when sanctioned IRGC officials travel to meetings of international organizations.
Al-Qaeda can only dream of such influence.
As my colleague Emanuele Ottolenghi details in his upcoming book, "The Pasdaran: Inside Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps," the IRGC is not only the preeminent military and security force within Iran. It also has become the dominant economic force, with hundreds of companies involved in every sector of Iran's economy. Unlike al-Qaeda, which raises funds from sympathizers in the Gulf and elsewhere, the IRGC wins billions of dollars in no-bid contracts in energy, transportation, automobile, and public works projects, and controls crude oil exports worth over $100 billion a year.
The Obama administration deserves credit for establishing a broad, multilateral sanctions regime targeting the IRGC. These sanctions have cost Iran over $60 billion in energy investment, helped to keep Iran's estimated $4.4 trillion of natural gas from reaching market, and made it enormously complicated for Iran to receive payment for its oil exports, particularly from China, India and South Korea.
Sanctions against Tehran however have so far failed to change its policies, because they have become an end in themselves, rather than means of making the regime vulnerable to other measures. Washington and Brussels have never followed through with a strategy to translate economic pressure into material support for the millions of Iranian dissidents who could overthrow the regime without foreign military intervention.
More than 30 years after Iran declared war on the United States — and on this tenth anniversary of 9/11 – Washington must recognize the centrality of the Iranian threat to its interests in the Middle East and beyond, and provide a comprehensive approach to counter it.
Mark Dubowitz is executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he heads projects on Iran and Syria sanctions, and on the use of technology to encourage democratic change.