Instructing Iran in Terrorist Etiquette

In Washington, the Obama administration is running interference for Tehran. President Obama has been threatening that if Congress passes a new sanctions bill, he will veto it, rather than risk upsetting Iranian officials to the point where they walk away from the bargaining table in Geneva.

Iran's senior officials suffer from no such delicacy toward the U.S. On Tuesday, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani gloated on Twitter that in the recent Geneva agreement, "world powers surrendered to Iranian nation's will." Meanwhile, Iran's foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator at the Geneva talks, Javad Zarif, made a point while visiting Lebanon of going to lay a wreath on the grave of assassinated Hezbollah terrorist kingpin Imad Mugniyah. Lest anyone miss the moment, Zarif did this before a bevy of photographers, ensuring that his thumb-in-the-eye to the U.S. would make news.

The White House responded with a statement that deserves to be studied by generations of journalism students as a marvel of bureaucratic nothingness -- condemning the deed, but effectively excusing Zarif himself, as if he were some well-meaning rube who didn't quite understand the full implications of commemorating Mugniyah. It was not Zarif whom the White House condemned, nor was it the Tehran regime for which he stands. Rather, in a statement by a National Security Council spokeswoman, the White House condemned "the decision" to lay the wreath, adding that it "sends the wrong message and will only exacerbate tensions in the region."

There was more to the White House statement. But again, it pulled the punch. It was rich in damning adjectives and short on the real thrust of Zarif's message. The White House deplored Mugniyah's "inhumane violence" and responsibility for "heinous acts of terrorism that killed hundreds of innocent people, including Americans." True, but this formulation skates close to implying the murdered Americans were collateral damage. Hardly. Hundreds of Americans were prime targets. As the New York Times recounts, until the massive al Qaeda attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, "American officials considered Imad Mugniyah to be responsible for more U.S. deaths than any other terrorist." They believed he was behind the 1983 bombings in Beirut of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks, which between them killed 258 Americans; as well as the kidnapping in the 1980s of scores of Americans; as well as the hijacking in 1985 of a TWA airliner and murder of one of the American passengers, Navy diver Robert Stethem.