Every year since taking office, Barack Obama has transmitted a video message of goodwill to Iran over YouTube, hoping his earnestness, eloquence, and quotations from ancient Persian verse will win over the country’s clerical rulers. The tone of these Nowruz (or Persian New Year) videos, released each March, has gradually shifted as Obama’s reconciliatory policies have met unrelenting defiance from Iran’s mullahs. In the first two, for example, the president called the Khomeinist regime by its full, official name (“the Islamic Republic of Iran”) as a way of signaling his appreciation for the mullahs’ domestic legitimacy. In 2009, Obama barely mentioned the catastrophic state of human rights inside the country. Even in 2010, after a massive post-election uprising had laid bare the Khomeinists’ moral bankruptcy, the president continued to offer them “mutual respect and mutual understanding.”
In his most recent message, however, Obama denounced the regime’s repression of Iranians in harsh terms. “Increasingly, the Iranian people are denied the basic freedom to access the information that they want,” he said. “Instead, the Iranian government jams satellite signals to shut down television and radio broadcasts. It censors the Internet to control what the Iranian people can see and say.” Even so, Obama’s underlying message remained intact. “There is no reason for the United States and Iran to be divided from one another,” the president insisted this year. “Let me say again that if the Iranian government pursues a responsible path, it will be welcomed once more among the community of nations.”
The administration’s national-security team has faith in the power of the president’s words to transcend the limits not only of blood and ideology, but also of history. As Obama put it in his first Nowruz message, his approach to Iran seeks to cultivate “a future where the old divisions are overcome.” But what looks to the president and his supporters like the sloughing off of a cumbersome past is viewed by the theocrats of Tehran as little more than the latest chapter in a three-decade-long, bipartisan sequence of American capitulation.
The notion that U.S.-Iran tension is rooted in a failure of communication or lack of mutual respect is not the brainchild of the Obama administration. It is, rather, the longstanding and uninspired status-quo position of Washington’s foreign-policy elite. Both the realist and liberal schools of thought take it as axiomatic that frustrations between the two countries are less a matter of ideological conflict than an inability to settle on reasonable, mutually satisfactory aims. This default posture is damaging not only because it has failed to curb Iranian provocation or advance American interests. Its open-ended implementation has had the cumulative effect of shaping the trajectory of an ever-more audacious Islamic Republic. The rogue regime in Tehran that now sprints toward a nuclear weapon while advertising its bellicose intentions is, in no small part, American-made. More than 30 years of wishful thinking have not forced Iran into stalemate; they have accommodated the incremental rise of the Islamists. Since the national fit of hysteria that was Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1978 and 1979 and the ineptitude of President Jimmy Carter’s reaction to it, Iranian leaders have been nurturing a sense of historical invincibility.
In 1978, a year before the birth of the Islamic Republic, millions of Iranians—including educated professionals—claimed to have glimpsed the exiled Shiite cleric Ruhollah Khomeini’s face on the moon. Undaunted by this harbinger of the dangerous passions gripping the once stable and pro-Western nation, American officials offered up only slightly less fantastic tributes to the man who would soon rule Iran. Andrew Young, President Carter’s ambassador to the United Nations, famously predicted: “Khomeini will eventually be hailed as a saint.” William Sullivan, the American ambassador to Iran at the time, described Khomeini as a “Gandhi-like figure.”
At the same time, the Carter administration continued to express a baseless confidence in the stability of the regime of Reza Pahlavi, the shah of Iran. On New Year’s Eve, 1977, Carter had called the Pahlavi dynasty “an island of stability” in an otherwise chaotic Mideast. And even as it became manifest that domestic unrest was threatening the regime, Carter remained sanguine. The CIA insisted the shah was safely in power, and a National Intelligence Estimate in 1978 claimed the shah’s rule would last comfortably for another decade. As Ronen Bergman writes in The Secret War with Iran, Carter’s CIA director later admitted: “We did not understand who Khomeini was and the support his movement had. We were just plain asleep.” The Carter administration’s muddled policy reflected that confusion. Because Carter was determined to distance the United States from the shah’s brutal intelligence services, cooperation was almost nonexistent, leaving the American officials to rely on Iranian intelligence. Carter’s negligence ensured that the United States would be reduced to spectator status as events unfolded.
Such miscalculations notwithstanding, the Carter administration didn’t “lose Iran.” The shah succumbed to larger forces that neither he nor even the United States had the power to halt. Put another way, the Pahlavis fell because they insisted on absolute rule long after Persian absolutism had run its course. (Paradoxically, as the Iranian-American scholar Abbas Milani and others have documented, it was Pahlavi-era reforms—massive investments in education and infrastructure, plus long-needed Western-style laws—that created the conditions for the shah’s eventual demise.)
It can be said, however, that Carter did lose the aftermath of the revolution—by repeatedly projecting American weakness in response to the Khomeinists’ excesses. There was, for example, the president’s public reluctance to admit the ailing Persian king to the United States for medical care in 1978. As Gholam Reza Afkhami, a Pahlavi-era deputy minister, recounts in The Life and Times of the Shah, his biography of Iran’s last monarch, that reluctance was overcome only thanks to the personal intercession of Henry Kissinger. Nevertheless, the “shah of shahs” was at one point forced to use a side entrance to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York as a way to hide his presence on American soil. The Carter administration’s quickness to dump the shah to gain favor with the new revolutionary regime amplified the Khomeinists’ sense that they had the power to humble the United States.
The greatest of the Iranian revolution’s excesses was, of course, the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by radical students in November 1979. Carter dithered for months before approving a rescue attempt, and when he did, Operation Eagle Claw turned out to be one of the most disastrous and embarrassing in the entire history of the U.S. armed forces. Helicopters malfunctioned and crashed in Iran’s northeast desert. The Almighty Himself, Khomeini and his supporters claimed, had created a sandstorm to confound the imperialists. “After the failed hostage rescue operation, 11 CIA officers who had infiltrated Iran fled,” David Crist writes in The Twilight War, a new history of the U.S.–Iran conflict. “With them went Carter’s presidency and any realistic hopes for rapprochement with Iran.” The Islamic Republic was understandably emboldened by the American failure.
A pattern of deference and ineffectiveness was now in place. What has followed has only been an elaboration of theme. Attempts at engaging Tehran remained at the top of the American agenda under every subsequent administration, including Reagan’s. To be sure, Reagan addressed Iranian leaders in much tougher terms throughout the 1980s than Carter ever had. The Reagan administration also imposed an arms embargo on Iran when war broke out in 1980 between Iran and Iraq. But as Crist details, Reagan’s Iran policy was primarily shaped by the dream of rapprochement with Iranian “moderates,” who might sway the Islamic Republic away from the Soviet sphere and back toward the Western one. Indeed, some Reagan-era cold warriors hoped Iran under Khomeini would reprise its pre-revolutionary role as a key anti-Communist bulwark in the Middle East.
The strategy rested on two faulty assumptions. For starters, the Khomeinists were never seriously at risk of falling under Soviet influence in the first place: Clerical hatred of Communism spanned a century of Iranian history, and soon after coming to power, the Khomeinists liquidated their erstwhile leftist allies. More important, there were no moderates as such to sway in the Khomeinist orbit—only radicals temporarily bending their principles to secure Western materiel for the war against Iraq.
Out of these two assumptions was born Iran-Contra, the secret arms-transfer agreement whereby the United States sold advanced missiles—initially via Israel, later directly—to Tehran. The architects of the deal had dual aims: first, to bolster imaginary moderates within the Khomeinist establishment and secure the release of American hostages held by the Iran-backed terror group Hezbollah, and second, to use the resulting funds to boost anti-Communist rebels in Nicaragua. But the hostages who were eventually released were quickly replaced by new ones, and the Iranian moderates never materialized.
The agreement culminated in the weirdest known episode in the history of postwar U.S. clandestine missions. “A retired Central Intelligence Agency official has confirmed to the Senate Intelligence Committee that on the secret mission to Teheran last May, [Reagan National Security Adviser] Robert C. McFarlane and his party carried a Bible with a handwritten verse from President Reagan for Iranian leaders,” the New York Times reported in January 1987. “The retired CIA official George W. Cave, an Iran expert who was part of the mission, said the group had 10 falsified passports, believed to be Irish, and a key-shaped cake to symbolize the anticipated ‘opening’ to Iran.?.?.?.?[A] senior State Department official independently confirmed that Mr. McFarlane?.?.?.?did carry the Reagan Bible as authentication for the group. But he said he was not sure about the cake and declined to discuss the passports.”
A key-shaped cake and a copy of the Good Book: Here was symbolic engagement in the pre-YouTube era.
A second layer to the policy pattern emerged during the Reagan years and would persist under subsequent presidents: a reluctance to address Iranian terror.
The most shocking case was the October 1983 Beirut barracks bombing, which claimed the lives of 241 Marines conducting a peacekeeping mission in Lebanon following Israel’s invasion the year before. This was the single deadliest attack on the U.S. Marine Corps since World War II. American intelligence quickly found conclusive evidence that Hezbollah, the Shia militia incepted, armed, and trained by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was responsible. A clear target for retaliation was the Iranian base at Baalbek. A joint American-French strike plan was quickly put together. But then Reagan Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger scuttled U.S. participation in the strike. Soon the United States withdrew from Lebanon altogether. The Iranian action went largely unpunished, and Hezbollah’s regional prestige shot through the roof.
After the Iran–Iraq War came to a close in 1988, Iranian and Iran-backed terror operations continued to claim hundreds of lives across the world, in Argentina, Israel, Germany, and Austria, among other countries. Yet an apparent shift in the Islamic Republic’s rhetorical posture, prompted by the rise of so-called pragmatists and reformists inside the country, impelled the West to stand down each time.
The tantalizing specter of regime moderates continued to haunt Washington. It didn’t seem to matter that many of the men who rebranded themselves as moderates for Western consumption were once hardcore revolutionaries. Nor did the proponents of engagement pay attention when these men addressed domestic audiences in decidedly immoderate terms. Former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the putative leader of the pragmatic faction inside the regime, was fond of reminding his compatriots that Israel was only a “one-bomb country” while the Islamic nation could survive several nuclear strikes. It was during Rafsanjani’s tenure, from 1989 to 1997, that the regime initiated its nuclear program and executed some of its most brazen global terrorist operations—including the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers complex in Saudi Arabia, which claimed the lives of 19 U.S. airmen.
Once again, no meaningful American retaliation answered these (and other) Iranian aggressions. Instead, the George H.W. Bush administration promised the Iranian regime that “goodwill begets goodwill,” as the president put it in his inaugural address. “There are benefits associated with Iran reintegrating itself into the community of nations,” Marlin Fitzwater, a Bush White House spokesman, told the New York Times in 1989. This reconciliatory rhetoric and posture seem identical to those deployed by the Obama administration today. And like the Obama engagement policy, the first Bush administration’s outreach was a largely one-way affair. It was blind to the uptick in overseas terror operations that followed the end of the Iran–Iraq War, not to mention the gross human-rights violations that should have dissuaded an American president from ever offering the mullahs the opportunity to join the fold of responsible nations. And similar to Obama’s overtures of engagement, the Bush effort was fruitless.
The Clinton administration put its own touch on engagement, choosing to spend much of its time responding to Iranian grievances, both real and perceived. Most notably, Bill Clinton had the United States apologize for the 1953 CIA-backed coup that overthrew Pahlavi-era Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh. The coup “was clearly a setback for Iran’s political development,” Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in 2000. “And it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs.” This was probably true, but it was less clear why Islamist clerics, who at the time promoted Mossadegh’s overthrow, should have had the benefit of an American apology.
The Clinton approach to engagement fed into the regime’s narrative of the U.S.–Iran conflict, according to which an inchoate set of historical grievances, dating back centuries, justified terrorism abroad and repression at home. More problematic still was the fact that Clinton’s engagement effort largely failed to distinguish between the Iranian regime and the population it misruled. It was once again the chimerical pragmatists and reformers among the clerics who were the recipients of American rhetorical largesse. This resulted in the so-called reformist leaders consistently snubbing American outreach. Back home, they joined hands with their hardline brethren in brutally repressing a 1999 student uprising that hinted at the extent of popular discontent with mullah rule.
The American pattern continued even after the September 11 attacks, when the United States launched a long global war against the practitioners of Islamist terror and their state sponsors. The words were tough: President George W. Bush confronted Iranian leaders with some of the harshest rhetoric they had ever heard from an American president. Bush named Iran a member of the “axis of evil,” alongside Iraq and North Korea. No president had spoken as passionately about the Iranian people’s growing aspirations for democracy and individual rights. Yet by the second Bush term, Islamic Republic officials were invited to negotiate with their American counterparts about the future of Iraq and Afghanistan—despite the fact that American military intelligence had determined that Iran was arming and training radical Shia militias in post-Saddam Iraq, and even some elements of the Taliban. This was the ultimate geopolitical case of asking the fox to watch the henhouse.
Although the Bush administration was forced by the demands of Iraq and Afghanistan to wind down the Iran freedom agenda, freedom remained on many Iranians’ minds as they cast their ballots in the country’s 2009 presidential election. The candidates who stood to oppose the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, were not genuine opposition figures but regime insiders. They sought only to make superficial improvements to the Islamic Republic. Yet the blatant rigging of the election by the Ahmadinejad faction, which drew the overt backing of the supreme leader, catalyzed a genuine opposition movement. Millions of Iranians poured into the streets of Tehran, their slogan quickly changing from “Where is my vote?” to “Down with dictator!”
This movement may not have had the capacity to bring the Islamic Republic close to collapse, but it held the promise of severely weakening the regime. Alas, the Obama administration chose to abandon the young democrats who were risking life and limb to resist Islamist tyranny in Iran, instead intensifying an engagement agenda that had failed for more than three decades.
Today the charade of engagement continues, with Obama still apparently convinced that his handling of the U.S.–Iran conflict represents some radical and hopeful departure from what was tried by prior presidents, who didn’t share Obama’s faith in negotiating with even our toughest adversaries.
Iranian leaders, men with longer memories, receive Obama’s Nowruz postcards, letters, and other friendly gestures with a mixture of amusement and contempt. Unlike the president, the country’s top mullah, Ayatollah Khomenei, exults in blood and ideology. And he remembers that the United States and Iran have, in fact, been talking since the mullahs first seized power. At any rate, he knows that Tehran has been transmitting the same message to Washington through the decades. “Down with America!” has been chanted by the regime’s supporters at every Friday prayer for 30 years—and they’ve acted on the threat repeatedly. For Iranian leaders, this latest American prostration affirms Ayatollah Khomeini’s prediction, issued at the height of the 1979 hostage crisis, that “America can’t do a damned thing against us.” In their eyes, the “Great Satan” really isn’t so great.