Our current conflict with Iran began thirty years ago on November 4th, 1979 when so-called Iranian “students” stormed the American Embassy in Tehran and took 66 American diplomats hostage. Since the Iranian revolution that brought Ayatollah Khomeini back to Iran as the supreme spiritual leader was only eight months old, there was initially some confusion over who really was in charge of the Iranian government and whether the embassy invasion and takeover was sanctioned by it. This ambiguity was cleared up within days when the Ayatollah made clear his support for the action, and by of his characterization of the embassy as a den of spies. Thus began a 444-day siege, with its affects, we would contend, having a significant influence on subsequent Iranian behavior and on the actions of Islamic terrorists in the wider Middle East.
We should acknowledge, however, that our tortured relationship with Iran predates the Khomeini government by, yet, an additional quarter century when the United States sided with Great Britain in planning and promoting the overthrow of Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, the popular Prime Minister of Iran. With the help of President Dwight Eisenhower, Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles and his younger brother, CIA Director, Allen Dulles, the Westward-leaning, Mohammad Rezā Shah was installed as the supreme ruler of Iran. Many Iranians cheered and, in the years that followed, prospered. Many others were resentful and hated the authoritarian Shah, and, in the years that followed, plotted. These simmering hostilities set the stage for the 1979 revolution, the embassy takeover and the anti-Americanism that spilled out into the open.
Certainly, it would take more than a single essay to review all of the reactions of our government during those 444 days when American embassy personnel were held hostage by Iran. Certain basic elements of American response standout. First of all, and perhaps most damaging to American effectiveness was President Carter’s reaction. There can be no denying that seizure of another country’s embassy, which under international law (if there is such a thing), is an act of war. Foreign embassies are considered to be the territory of the country that has diplomatic relations with the host nation and invading it is akin to invading the sovereign terrain of that country. It is this principle that underlies the ability of an embassy to provide diplomatic protection and asylum.
Carter’s reaction to this unambiguous act of war against the country he led was to try and apply diplomatic pressure and to cut off oil shipments from Iran to the United States. But he never threatened any more widespread sanctions or the use of force. U.S. naval forces, which were preeminent in the world, were not deployed. The Iranian ambassador in the U.S. was not called to the White House or the State Department and issued an ultimatum that unless the hostages were immediately released, America would consider itself at war with Iran and would, immediately, act accordingly – diplomatically, economically and militarily. Nothing was done. Carter eschewed the utilization of American force and hence our best asset in that area of the world was taken out of play.
Instead, in a bewildering journey of twists and turns, Carter and his representatives began a humiliating series of negotiations. While our diplomats were held prisoner and, while some were being tortured, the Administration, acting through various intermediaries, agreed to one Iranian demand after another. The President negotiated an unfreezing of Iranian assets held in the U.S. and agreed to publicly promise not to impose additional sanctions on Iran. Then additional demands were piled on including official American approval of a resolution by Iran’s parliament and a promise not to make hostile statements about the regime. Carter, according to Mark Bowden’s book “Guests of the Ayatollah” also agreed to these further humiliations, but that wasn’t enough for the Ayatollah who had us on the run and who vetoed the deal._
The former Shah was undergoing cancer treatment at the Mayo Clinic and was, at Iran’s insistence, kicked out of the country. He died shortly thereafter in Cairo. This was a real and continuing lesson to friend and foe alike of our steadfastness when the going got tough. Carter’s chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, in disguise (a wig, false mustache and glasses) flew to Paris to meet Iran’s foreign minister. However, this meeting leaked to the press and the negotiations went nowhere. Carter did, however, take some forceful action that most assuredly scared the Iranians to death. He refused to light the White House Christmas tree. Americans were reduced to following the advice of Tony Orlando and Dawn and they hung thousands of yellow ribbons around old oak trees.
Many months after the embassy siege, on April 25th, 1980, President Carter ordered a bold and brave, but operationally plagued, rescue mission. Tragically, everything that could go wrong did go wrong and the mission quickly devolved into what seemed to be a metaphor for the Carter presidency. Eight soldiers were killed; four of eight helicopters crashed into the Iranian desert and a C130 aircraft was lost. Iranians danced in the streets upon hearing of the failed rescue mission. America, referred to as The Great Satan, was depicted as a pitiful, helpless giant. It would not be an understatement to suggest that by comparison this ill-fated venture made the Bay of Pigs look like D-Day.
This was the beginning of fecklessness in U.S. Iranian policy and it set off the chain of events which has resulted, step by step, in Iran’s outrageous and threatening behavior toward the U.S. Finally, and in a demonstration of their complete disdain for Carter, and some would argue, out of fear that Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan would order more muscular steps, the hostages were released on the first day following President Reagan’s inauguration. The Iranian relationship, however, also vexed President Reagan. Various operatives in the Reagan Administration, without the President’s knowledge, negotiated the sale of arms to Iran (through Israel) in return for the release of Americans held hostage in Beirut. The funds from the weapon sales were, without Congressional approval or knowledge, transferred to the Contras who were fighting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The Iran-Contra scandal, which resulted in indictments of high-ranking officials in the Reagan Administration (who were subsequently pardoned by President George HW Bush), almost destroyed Reagan’s presidency.
Fast forward to more current times. In a 2006 report our State Department labeled Iran the most active state sponsor of terrorism on the planet. The report stated that its Revolutionary Guard and its Ministry of Intelligence and Security had been directly involved in planning and supporting terrorist actions in Lebanon and Syria, especially through its Hezbollah proxy. Its support of the rejectionist group Hamas, which controls Gaza, is beyond denial. According to the Federation of American Scientists, the Revolutionary Guard also conducts training activities in Sudan. All of this is background to the most critical threat we face from Iran (itself a signatory to the Nuclear Non‑Proliferation Treaty), the development of nuclear weapons capability.
For many years, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Iran has denied that it is attempting to develop a nuclear bomb. Iran’s efforts to enrich uranium to weapons grade was initially denied until that became an unsustainable lie. They now claim these efforts are for the peaceful use of nuclear energy which, of course, is known to be false. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has tried to have it both ways. It called on Tehran to demonstrate proof of its peaceful intentions but in a separate statement stated that it saw insufficient proof of Iranian efforts to develop a bomb. However in his final address, after three terms as head of IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei stated that he “regretted that Iran has not implemented the measures called for by the IAEA and the United Nations.”
The U.N., not itself easily stirred to take forceful action, has twice (both in 2006 and 2007) adopted sanctions resolutions aimed at Iran. The first resolution banned trade with Iran of all items, materials, equipment, goods and technology which could constitute a uranium enrichment program and listed persons and entities whose actions would be subject to a freeze, while the later resolution banned arm exports from Iran and imposed a freeze on the financial assets of 28 individuals and entities.
It is an understatement to say that these resolutions have been ineffective. In fact, Iran very recently announced a major expansion of its centrifuge development program. Its nuclear facilities, one of which it denied existed, are thought to be deeply deployed underground. It continues to export banned items, including bomb-making parts used by Hamas and Hezbollah. It has recently been caught red-handed trading in banned armaments.
As President Obama is fond of saying, he inherited a mess. And he is correct. But he sought the presidency and the American people entrusted their safety and security to him. He said in his campaign that nuclear weapons in Iran’s hands were “a game changer.” So, what is his program? The president wants to “engage” with Iran. He has said so countless times. He has proposed sending emissaries to meet with them, and he has acknowledged mistakes in past American policy. Famously, he has offered to reach out his hand if Iran would “unclench its fist”…but he has also set a December 31, 2009 deadline for Iran to accept his offer to “engage.” What has Iran done? It has explicitly and repeatedly rejected his offer. Ahmadinejad says Iran’s nuclear program is “a closed issue.”
The president, however, probably still basking in the oratorical skills which were so instrumental in his winning the 2008 election, seems to think that those skills employed in a face to face meeting will convince the Iranians to abandon their nuclear bomb ambitions. What is it about “no” that he fails to understand? Does the president really believe that a man, like Ahmadinejad, who denies the Holocaust or who opines that Israel should be wiped off the map will be bowled over by his powers of persuasion over lunch?
Yes, the President inherited a bad, but certainly not hopeless, situation. He still can move quickly to convene a meeting of leaders of the U.S., France, England, Germany, Russia and China and demand implementation of much stronger sanctions. For starters, all Iranian assets in existing banks from those countries and all of the EU could be frozen. Business could be terminated with any company or country doing business with Iran. All technical assistance to Iran from any of those nations could be ended. Exports of refined gasoline could be cut off. Let’s face the facts: the Iranian nuclear threat is existential, not just to Israel, but to America, Europe and numerous Islamic countries as well.
With or without Russia and China this would be the time for a coalition of the willing to implement those steps. Western banks and commerce denied to Iran would be potent. The president also has one advantage not available to his predecessor. In 2009, Ahmadinejad was declared the winner of clearly fraudulent elections. This has led to widespread street protests by unarmed Iranian citizens. The protestors have been joined by some of Ahmadinejad’s presidential opponents. In the last couple of weeks, since the death of Ayatollah Montazeri, an original ally of Khomeini, (who later criticized the regime’s brutality and who thereafter was marginalized by them), the protests have grown and innocent people have been shot dead at street demonstrations. These protests are the first serious threat to the mullahs since the 1979 revolution and could eventually evolve into regime change in Iran.
So what has our president done? After the Iranian elections, he made clear he continued to want dialogue with Iran and spoke optimistically of favorable signals from the “supreme leader,” (using that honorific) Ayatollah Khamenei. As Charles Krauthammer analyzed it, people were not “dying in the streets because they want a recount of hanging chads in suburban Isfahan. They want to bring down the tyrannical, misogynist, corrupt theocracy that has imposed itself with the …baton wielding goons that … attack the demonstrators.” During his Hawaiian vacation the president was stirred to take 10 minutes before a round of golf to criticize Iranian government actions. How moving this must have been to the Iranian citizens who, at the risk of life and limb, had taken to the streets.
The question that hangs in the air over Tehran is whether the president will seize the opportunity and clearly send the proper signal that America stands firmly for liberty and democracy and supports the desire of Iranians for freedom from tyranny. Will he step up a campaign to get information and truth to a people cutoff by their leaders from news the government fears they will hear? We doubt it. This president seems to be caught up in the hubris that has grown up around him. He seems only to believe in his own power of persuasion to make the world the way he wants it. He imposes, for purely political purposes, an artificial deadline to get his health care bill rushed through Congress, but a dime will get you a dollar, not much will happen when his deadline for “engagement” expires as the ball goes down in Times Square.
Fecklessness has been the cornerstone of US policy from Carter to Obama. We seem unable to put in place consistent results-oriented policy. The terrible consequences of this failure are incalculable. The Iranian leadership is entirely unambiguous regarding its view of the United States. We are, in their words, The Great Satan, the Crusader, the Infidel.
President Obama might want to ponder, carefully, the words of another political leader from Illinois who also faced an implacable foe. “The (enemy) does not attempt to deceive us. He affords us no excuse to deceive ourselves.”
– -Abraham Lincoln, December 6, 1864.