by Bruce Thornton
When will we start taking the Mullahs at their word?
President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have celebrated the lifting of economic sanctions on Iran and the release of five American prisoners held by its government as a triumph of “smart diplomacy.” According to Kerry, it was the nuclear deal that paved the way for the U.S. to settle peacefully the conflict with the Iranians over the jailed Americans, as well as secure the release of ten American sailors detained in the Persian Gulf. “Were it not for that process, I do not believe this could’ve happened, nor do they,” he commented after the prisoners were released.
Critics have a different take. The exchange of Americans unlawfully detained on specious pretexts, for seven Iranians duly indicted or already convicted for violating American law by stealing military related technology, appeared to be less a prisoner exchange than a payment of ransom for hostages. Indeed, $1.7 billion of Iranian funds impounded in 1979 was wired to Iran just as three of the American prisoners departed from Iran in a Swiss Air Force jet––on top of the $100-150 billion promised to Iran as part of the deal. Nothing was done about the $45 billion in civil judgments awarded to Americans for damages suffered from Iranian-sponsored terrorism.
Moreover, hard upon the Americans’ release, three Iraqi-Americans were kidnapped in Iraq, most likely by Asaib Ahl al-Haqa, a jihadist militia sponsored by Iran’s Republican Guard Quds Force. Meanwhile the administration gave up “red-flagging” with Interpol fourteen other Iranians who are suspected of smuggling weapons to Syria. Such a bad deal could hardly be termed “historic progress though diplomacy,” as Secretary Kerry claimed.
The questions surrounding the “prisoner exchange” are intensifying the broader criticism of the nuclear deal with Iran. Obama’s reliance on the honesty and trustworthiness of the Iranians seems to many critics to be naïve, if not delusional. The president encourages such doubts when he promises, “Inspectors will monitor Iran’s key nuclear facilities 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.” “Key” seems to be a loophole word, as Tom Rogan of National Review has pointed out: “By describing only some nuclear facilities as ‘key,’ President Obama is tacitly accepting Iran’s obstruction of non-key facility inspections. Iran will simply use military sites for nuclear-weaponization research and then claim those facilities are off limits or clean them up before inspections.”
Nor does the International Atomic Energy Agency inspire confidence in its oversight, if only because it is not free to inspect at will all pertinent nuclear facilities, and is barred from others, such as those related to ballistic missile development. Hence IAEA’s claims that Iran has shipped its 98-percent enriched uranium to Russia, or has disabled the core of its heavy water nuclear reactor at Arak, cannot be definitively confirmed. Nor can anyone know the full extent of Iran’s nuclear sites, given its long record of evasion and lies. And even if the IAEA is correct in its assurances, Iran still retains the equipment and expertise for enriching uranium to bomb-grade percentages, and can restart their centrifuges at any time of its choosing. In short, the president’s assurances that “Iran will not get its hands on a nuclear bomb” are not very credible.
Yet the failures of this latest deal with Iran are consistent with the long history of our relationship with the Islamic Republic from the time it was created in 1979. That history reveals repeated mistakes, failures of imagination, and an inability to understand correctly the motives and beliefs that drive Iran’s ruling clerical elite.
This misreading and misunderstanding of Iran began with the Islamic Revolution. Many American foreign policy analysts interpreted the demonstrations against the Shah as an anticolonialist resistance to an autocrat propped up by the U.S. to serve its Cold War and corporate interests. Thus those attacking the Shah were motivated by aspirations for nationalist self-determination, political rights, and civil liberties.
In fact, the prime mover of the revolution was the clerical class, led by the Ayatollah Khomeini, who had long been angry at secularization and modernization campaigns that dated back to the Shah’s father. As Khomeini said in 1963, the Shah’s “regime also has a more basic aim: they are fundamentally opposed to Islam itself and the existence of a religious class.” The source of this hostility against Islam, moreover, was laid at the feet of the West and its baleful global influence, which Iranian social critic Jalal Al-e-Ahmad termed “Westoxification.” As Middle East historian Barry Rubin writes, the evidence showing the religious origins of the revolution was dismissed by Jimmy Carter’s advisors: “Islamic rhetoric was seen as a mask, as a convenient vehicle for expressing accumulated economic, political, and social grievances.” But as Khomeini said, “We did not create a revolution to lower the price of melons.”
Without a correct understanding of the Iranian regime’s motives, we were at a disadvantage when confronting its aggression. The Carter administration perceived the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran and the hostage crisis as Iran expressing its grievances to the United States, the latest one being allowing the exiled Shah to seek medical treatment in the U.S. Thus the crisis was one to be resolved through negotiation, instead of recognizing it as an act of aggression in the religious war Iran had declared on America.
Worse yet, Americans seemingly were oblivious to the fact that they were dealing with a regime that did not adhere to the received wisdom of modern Western diplomacy among nations, which assumes disputes can be resolved by good-faith negotiation and material inducements or punishments. For the mullahs, maintaining prestige and attacking the U.S. were more important than being part of an international system with a specific set of rules. Any sign of weakness––secret conciliatory letters from Carter to Khomeini, for example––was taken as a confirmation that Allah was guiding events to achieve Iran’s ultimate triumph over the infidel West. When Carter’s attempt to rescue the hostages ended in disaster and the loss of eight American soldiers in a sandstorm, Khomeini exulted, “Those sand particles were divinely commissioned . . . Our people is the people of blood, and our school is the school of jihad.”
In the end the hostages were set free because Carter released billions of Iranian funds that had been frozen in American banks. Ransom was paid to kidnappers, and the lesson drawn by the mullahs and the nascent jihadist groups nurtured by Tehran was that America could be bullied into capitulation.
The same misapprehension of the regime’s motives and religious nature took place under Ronald Reagan. In 1983 a jihadist group trained and funded by Iran bombed the Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 military personnel. That attack was answered by a withdrawal of U.S. forces, even as the French and Israelis bombed terrorist camps in the Bekaa Valley in retaliation for attacks on their personnel. As then Secretary of State George Shultz wrote in his memoirs, the Marines “left in a rush amid ridicule from the French and utter disappointment and despair from the Lebanese.” As much as the later defeat of the Russians in Afghanistan, the failure to retaliate for the murder of our soldiers emboldened the growing international jihadist movement, and convinced it that a demoralized and hedonistic U.S. would run in the face of terror. We failed to recognize that such perceptions of us increased our enemies’ morale, filled them with contempt for us, and so acted as a force multiplier.
Equally disastrous in this regard was the so-called Iran-Contra scandal a few years later. After Iranian jihadist proxies kidnapped four Americans in Lebanon, including the CIA station chief who was tortured to death, a scheme was hatched in which the hostages would be ransomed by selling over 2,000 TOW anti-take missiles and 100 HAWK anti-aircraft missiles to Iran in violation of an arms embargo, with the proceeds used to arm the Contras battling the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. In addition to securing the release of the hostages, the transaction was believed to be a way to improve relations with Iran.
In reality, the whole scheme merely confirmed Iran’s perception that we were weak. The jihadists quickly replaced the three released Americans by kidnapping three others. And the idea that relations with Iran, which had declared war on the U.S., could be improved by diplomatic gestures and material inducements like weapons bespoke the continuing failure to see the regime in its own terms––as an army of Allah obeying the Prophet’s injunction, as Khomeini himself said, “to fight all men until they say, ‘There is no god but Allah.’”
Such misguided diplomatic “outreach” has been continuous through Democrat and Republican administrations down to the present, even as Iranian proxies have shed American blood in Iraq and Afghanistan. Attempts to “engage” the mullahs on the basis of “mutual interests and respect” have all foundered on the same rocks: the failure of imagination that has kept our foreign policy establishment from accepting that the ruling elite does not want to come to terms with an enemy that it perceives is the “Great Satan”—the superpower that stands in the way of the Islamic global dominance intended by Allah for the “best of nations,” as the Koran says. Moreover, this misunderstanding of these passionate religious beliefs leads to tactics and strategies doomed to failure, for they damage our prestige by projecting weakness and doubt that encourage further aggression.
This latest misguided attempt at changing Iran’s behavior and transforming it into “a very successful regional power” respecting “international norms and international rules,” as Obama has promised, is already failing. The regime continues to stifle dissent at home: a few days after the sanctions were lifted, it disqualified almost 7,600 moderate candidates from running for parliament. And flush with up to $150 billion in released funds and many more billions to come from oil sales and foreign investment now that the economic sanctions have been lifted, Tehran continues to develop its nuclear capacity and missile technology, continues to meddle in Syria and Iraq through its terrorist proxies, continues to saber-rattle in the Persian Gulf by firing missiles near our ships, and continues to threaten Israel, “a cancerous tumor” in the words of Supreme Leader Khamenei, with genocide. Only now there is a real possibility Iran will acquire nuclear weapons, and make its threats and boasts of ultimate triumph more credible.
Over thirty years of “outreach” and “engagement” under presidents of both parties have not transformed a theocratic regime fired with religious certainty and confidence in the righteousness of its cause. As former Secretary of State Robert Gates has said, “My view is that the belief that Iran over time is going to evolve into a regular nation state and abandon its theological revolutionary underpinnings, its aspirations in the region, or even its aspirations for nuclear weapons is unrealistic.” In word and deed, Iran has made it clear that it is at war with America. Perhaps it’s time that we start taking the mullahs at their word and act accordingly.
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy's Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.
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