Former House Foreign Affairs CoS Yleem Poblete: Failing, again, to connect the dots on Iran

As two House Foreign Affairs subcommittees prepare to hold a hearing on the threat of Iran in the Western Hemisphere, one cannot help but recall what Machiavelli wrote about centuries ago in The Prince: When threats are identified well in advance, they can be quickly addressed - but “when, for lack of diagnosis, they are allowed to grow in such a way that everyone can recognize them, remedies are too late.” Machiavelli’s warning continues to ring true and U.S. national security officials and policymakers should heed his advice, starting with developments in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The State Department’s most recent “Country Reports on Terrorism” took a myopic look at the potential threat of transnational terrorist collaboration in the Western Hemisphere seemingly ignoring, for example, DEA arrests of Colombian FARC rebels for allegedly trading drugs for arms with members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb operating in North Africa. The report considered the potential for an “attack” in the Western Hemisphere but failed to look at the threat in context with the 1994 Buenos Aires Jewish center bombing in which Hezbollah terrorists and the explosives they used came through the Tri-Border area in South America.  It further stated that there were no “known operational cells of either al-Qaeda or Hezbollah” in the region but the necessary steps have not yet been taken to address this knowledge gap.

Despite this prologue, Congress remained hopeful about the review they had requested on the Iranian threat in the Hemisphere. Perhaps it was due to the nature of information that had prompted the legislation mandating the assessment and accompanying strategy, or the expectation that data from across the U.S. government and regional partners would be considered.  Also, Manssor Arbabsiar had been sentenced in May to 25 years in prison for plotting to commit “significant terrorist acts in the United States” to include the assassination of the Saudi ambassador. When the plot was unveiled, the Attorney General had affirmed it had been "conceived”, “sponsored” and “directed” from Iran. The head of the U.S. Southern Command had testified earlier this year the plot “demonstrates Iran is willing to leverage criminal groups to carry out its objectives in the U.S. homeland.”

Yet, the report submitted by the State Department on June 27th suggested Iranian influence in the region is waning. Iran’s diplomatic, economic, military and intelligence activities were all evaluated - but in isolation, rather than delving into the correlation between these in order to better assess the threat.  

This further fueled concerns about the failure of national security officials to recognize problems well before they grow or mutate - concerns that extend to Africa.

For example, a December 2011 congressional report found that the Islamist militant group Boko Haram posed an “emerging threat” to U.S. security interests. As with the legislation focusing on Iran in the Western Hemisphere, some in the policy establishment accused Congress of overreacting to Boko Haram's activities. They focused on remarks by the top U.S. military commander for Africa who said Boko Haram, among other groups operating on the continent, were not “yet” capable of mounting “significant” transnational attacks. These detractors slipped back into complacency and Boko Haram continued its bombings, kidnappings and other terrorist attacks in northern Nigeria. 

Boko Haram’s destructive campaign appears to have now shifted to “soft targets,” with its militants, in recent weeks, storming a school in Yobe State and murdering defenseless children. In response, the British government announced it would be adding the group to its list of terrorist organizations. The U.S. has not issued a similar determination. State Department officials have explained the U.S. stance by suggesting during congressional testimony that Boko Haram is comprised of two distinct entities. Ironically, the European Union recently used similar arguments to defend its bifurcation of Hezbollah’s structure and designation of only the group’s “military” wing as terrorist.

Is the U.S., again, failing to connect the dots? As was abundantly clear on September 11, 2012 with the attack on the mission in Benghazi, the consequences could be deadly. Policymakers must work together to diagnose and address threats well in advance, not wait until they have escalated and hope to contain them.  

Yleem D.S. Poblete, PhD is the former Chief of Staff of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, U.S. House of Representatives, where she served for over 18 years.  She is a co-founder of Poblete Analysis Group and guest lecturer on a range of foreign policy matters.