Just in the last few months, events have hastened to a crisis in Iran’s long confrontation with the West. The ongoing civil war in Syria looks more and more likely to end with the ouster of strongman Bashar al-Assad, one of Tehran’s most stalwart regional allies and an important supporter of the Iranian proxy terrorist organization, Hezbollah in Lebanon. In November, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported evidence suggesting that Iran is carrying out “undisclosed nuclear-related activities,” including the “development of a nuclear payload for a missile.” According to Israeli intelligence, Iran now has enough material for four to five nuclear bombs.
Photo credit: kamshots, via flickr
Since the IAEA report was made public, mysterious explosions have rocked Iran. On November 12, a huge blast completely destroyed a military base that housed Iran’s long-range missile development facility, killing the founder of Iran’s missile program and destroying 180 missiles. Another explosion on November 28 seriously damaged a nuclear conversion site. And in December, blasts have occurred at the Isfahan oil refinery, a military base in Kerman, and a steel factory making nose cones and other parts for missiles. These attacks have rattled further a regime that is on edge over the rumors of a possible Israeli military strike and the impact of international economic sanctions. Rioters, comprised of members of the brutal Basij militia, recently attacked and sacked the British embassy in Tehran, either because of British sanctions against Iran’s banking sector, or internal power struggles among Iran’s leaders.
All these signs of turmoil point to great instability in a region critical to American interests. The dangerous instability would only escalate if a regime ruled by clerics, who endorse an apocalyptic strain of Shia Islam, gained nuclear weapons capability. Yet the roots of this critical moment stretch back thirty years, when America’s policy of serial appeasement of the Iranian mullahs and their aggression first began.
The Islamic Republic of Iran was born in the 1979 attack on the U.S. embassy in Tehran and the kidnapping of our citizens there, 52 of whom were held hostage for 444 days. This blatant violation of international law and challenge to U.S. prestige was met with the whole repertoire of appeasing evasions evocative of the 1938 crisis in the Sudetenland: diplomatic “outreach,” a U.N. Security Council Resolution, a U.N. commission of inquiry into America’s “crimes,” secret third-party negotiations, and, of course, economic sanctions and a trade embargo rendered toothless by the Iranian threat to cut Europe off from Iranian oil.
In the end, this policy of appeasement failed and the West lost Iran.
In the end, this appeasement failed and the West lost Iran. What arose was an oil-rich, jihadist state that immediately began to make good on one ayatollah’s promise that “an Islamic and divine government, much like Iran” would be created in other Muslim nations.
As part of that expansion, in 1982 Iran’s Quds force––the unit of the Revolutionary Guards tasked with exporting the Islamic Revolution––turned Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley into a training facility for a number of terrorist outfits, most importantly Hezbollah. One of these groups, Islamic Jihad, struck America in 1983 with two suicide truck-bomb attacks in Beirut. The first targeted our embassy, killing 17. A few months later, the more devastating attack destroyed the U.S. Marine barracks, killing 241 Marines and other military personnel sent to Lebanon as peacekeepers. A high Iranian official would later say that the Iranians had trained the bombers, and that “we were happy” when they heard of the attack.
Though the Reagan administration planned a retaliatory strike on the Bekaa training camps, it was never carried out. Instead, the Marines were pulled out “in a rush,” Secretary of State George Shultz wrote later, “amid ridicule from the French and utter disappointment and despair from the Lebanese.” Osama bin Laden would later refer to this retreat as further evidence that America had “foundations of straw” and could be toppled with attacks that sent troops home in body bags.
This unpunished aggression was followed by other murders and kidnappings of Americans, including CIA station chief William Buckley, who was beaten and tortured to death in 1985 by Imad Fayez Mugniyah, the architect of the Marine barracks bombing. In response, the Reagan administration undertook the disastrous arms-for-hostages operation that unfolded from 1985 to 1986. What came to be known as “Iran-Contra” involved ransoming American hostages held by terrorists in Lebanon by selling Iran several thousand anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles in violation of an arms embargo. Three hostages were released––but then were immediately replaced by three other kidnapped Americans. The only message sent to the Iranians was that the United States would provide advanced weaponry to a regime that had declared war on it and murdered its troops and citizens.
Iran continues to support terrorist groups that attack U.S. interests.
Throughout the nineties, Iran continued with impunity to provide support and training to terrorist organizations attacking U.S. interests, including al Qaeda. One attack, a joint project of Hezbollah, Iran, and al Qaeda, was the 1996 truck bombing of the Khobar Towers, a residential complex for U.S. Air Force personnel near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 Americans. A few years later, according to the 9/11 Commission Report, Iran helped al Qaeda members, including future 9/11 hijackers, cross into and out of Afghanistan. More recently, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards force has continued to support the terrorists killing our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, supplying insurgents with anti-aircraft missiles and roadside bombs designed to penetrate protective armor on vehicles. And let’s not forget other unpunished assaults on the United States, such as the kidnapping and detention of three U.S. citizens on the false charge of spying, and the uncovered plot to murder the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C. in a public restaurant. Meanwhile, Iran moves ever closer to possessing nuclear weapons.
For thirty years, this aggression has been answered with ineffective economic sanctions, or rewarded with diplomatic “outreach” and “meaningful engagement,” the latter from President Obama. Over the years, America has failed to punish the Iranian regime for many reasons, ranging from Cold War geopolitical calculations to Iran’s importance as a major oil exporter. But the most important failure is the lack of understanding of the religious motives of Iranian behavior.
This misunderstanding was evident in how in 1979 the West portrayed the architect of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, as a fringe “fanatic,” in the words of Time magazine. Our foreign policy establishment understood the revolution itself as essentially secular, an anti-colonial overthrow of an American puppet who oppressed his people and stymied their aspirations for democratic self-determination.
Yet the roots of Khomeini’s revolution were mainly religious, a reaction against the Shah’s modernization and secularization programs. To the clerical establishment, these were evidence that the Shah was “fundamentally opposed to Islam itself and the existence of a religious class,” as Khomeini preached. To President Carter’s foreign policy team, however, the religious dimension of the revolt against the Shah was secondary, as an Assistant Secretary of State put it, to the “very substantial improvements . . . in living standards and economic and social opportunities” made under the Shah but vitiated by his refusal to give his people the democratic freedom they presumably were now demanding. But as Khomeini would say later, “We did not create a revolution to lower the price of melons.” The point, rather, was to create an Islamic government consistent with Sharia law, like the regime still ruling Iran.
It is critical for us to understand the religious motives of Iran's behavior.
That misapprehension of the Iranian regime has continued today. Obama’s diplomatic outreach to the mullahs “without preconditions,” like his personal letter to the Ayatollah Khamenei calling for “co-operation in regional and bilateral relations,” assumes that Iran’s clerical leadership is motivated by the desire to live in peace with its neighbors and the international community, while providing economic opportunity and social order to its citizens. But everything Iran’s leaders have said and done for thirty years suggests that the mullahs are driven by an Islamic vision of a Muslim nation at war with infidels whose mere existence challenges the ability of believers everywhere to live according to the precepts of Islam. As Khomeini once said, “Islam is a religion of blood for the infidels but a religion of guidance for other people.”
Since the IAEA report, Western governments have apparently shed their illusions about the Iranian regime as amenable to persuasion and change, though so far no credible response to the nuclear threat beyond more sanctions has appeared, at least publicly.
As the costs of our misreading the Iranian revolution have become obvious, the same failure of imagination conditions our response to events in the rest of today’s Middle East—namely, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. Despite the Muslim Brothers’ long record of jihadist theory and violence aimed at creating Islamist regimes founded on illiberal Sharia law, for months we have heard of the “liberal” or “moderate” Muslim Brotherhood. In Egypt, after the Muslim Brothers and the more radical Salafists won 61 percent of the vote in a recent election––and those votes were cast in urban areas presumably more liberal and secular than country villages––the Washington Post editorialized, “As long as they [the Muslim Brothers and Salafists] are willing to play by the rules, those parties should not be treated as a specter to be feared.” And despite evidence to the contrary, the New York Times claimed, “Most Egyptians have no interest in swapping Mubarak’s secular dictatorship for a religious one.”
That judgment is based not on what Egyptians say and do, but on what we uncritically assume are the normal aspirations and good intentions of all people regardless of their culture and faith. This is the same error made thirty years ago, when the conventional wisdom thought that the secular nationalists and liberals in Iran would prevail over the clerics and the religious parties. Three decades later, we still have not learned to heed the simple wisdom of Sun Tzu: “If ignorant both of your enemy and yourself, you are certain to be in peril.”
The counts of the indictment against the Iranian regime and the wider Islamist project are many, and discouragingly familiar. But the most important count, and one that Professor Thornton states with exceptional clarity, is the one that names us. It is the failure of our own imagination that has cost us most. And the real cost is yet to come.