In the summer of 2000, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin told me a story that I have been unable to get out of my mind. We were meeting in the Kremlin, and I raised the grave danger facing the world from the transfer of missile technology and nuclear material to the Iranians. In Putin's view, however, the real danger came not from an Iranian nuclear-tipped missile or, for that matter, from the lethal arsenal of any nation-state.
"Imagine a sunny and beautiful day in a suburb of Manhattan," he said. "An elderly man is tending to the roses in his small garden with his nephew visiting from Europe. Life seems perfectly normal. The following day, the nephew, carrying a suitcase, takes a train to Manhattan. Inside the suitcase is a nuclear bomb."
The threat, Putin explained to me a year before 9/11, was not from this or that country but from their terrorist proxies -- aided and supported quietly by a sovereign state that doesn't want to get its hands dirty -- who will perpetrate their attacks without a return address. This scenario became real when Al Qaeda plotted its 9/11 attacks from within Afghanistan and received support from the Taliban government. Then it happened again this summer, when Iran was allowed to wage a proxy war through Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and northern Israel. But this time, the international community's weak response dealt the global war on terror a severe blow.
Five years ago, after 9/11, such a lack of culpability seemed inconceivable. That was when President Bush abandoned the conventional approach to fighting terror by vowing that the United States would henceforth make no distinction between terrorists and regimes that support them. You are either with us or you are with the terrorists.
In the pre-9/11 world, regimes were rarely held responsible for the actions of terror groups. Now the Taliban regime was being held accountable.
This was critically important for two reasons. First, it recognized that international terrorism relies on the support of sovereign states. It is regimes, after all, that give terror groups territory on which to train, arm and indoctrinate their members, and regimes that provide them critical financial, diplomatic, logistical and intelligence support.
Regimes that support terror groups do have a return address and are rarely suicidal.
Second, although shadowy terror cells are difficult to eradicate fully and suicidal fanatics impossible to deter, the regimes that support terror groups do have a return address and are rarely suicidal. Thus, holding the Taliban responsible for the actions of Al Qaeda, and elevating the logic for doing so to a central principle in the war on terror, greatly enhanced deterrence. Every single regime was immediately put on notice.
Fast forward five years. Hezbollah launches an unprovoked attack on Israel. It is clear that Hezbollah is a proxy of Iran. It is public knowledge that Hezbollah receives more than $100 million a year from the Iranian regime, as well as sophisticated weapons and training.
Yet Iran has paid no price for its proxy's actions. No military strikes on Iranian targets, no sanctions, no threat whatsoever to Iranian interests. On the contrary, in the wake of the war, there have been renewed calls in the democratic world to "engage" Iran.
Symptomatic of the moral myopia in the West is a farce worthy of Orwell: Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, under whom students were tortured after a 1999 crackdown at Tehran University and whose rule was marked by the continued stifling of dissent, spoke Sunday at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government on "Ethics of Tolerance in the Age of Violence."
The Iranian regime's intentions are clear. It calls for "wiping Israel off the map" and tells its followers to "imagine a world without America." It seeks to dominate the Middle East. By failing to hold Iran accountable for its brazen support of Hezbollah, the free world has undermined a central pillar in the war on terror and given the Iranian regime a huge weapon for achieving its ambitions. Now the mullahs know they can attack a democratic country with impunity.
Considering the apocalyptic fanaticism of Iran's leader, it is an open question whether the current regime in Tehran is capable of being deterred through the threat of mutually assured destruction. But given how the world has responded to Hezbollah, the point may be academic. For surely Iran would be better served by using proxies to wage a nuclear war against Israel. And if there is no accountability, why stop with Israel?
The road to a suitcase bomb in Tel Aviv, Paris or New York just got a whole lot shorter.
This article originally appeared in the LA Times.