For all their differences, President Barack Obama uncannily resembles his Democratic predecessor, President Jimmy Carter, in his stiff-necked, self-righteous inability to listen to others or to learn from experience or history. Against ferocious opposition at home and abroad, he is about to repeat the grievous mistake of appeasing Iran that Carter made over three decades ago and do even more geopolitical damage than the hapless peanut farmer wreaked in 1979.
Recall the history. On February 1, 1979, two weeks after the cancer-ridden Shah of Iran left his country in the hands of a caretaker as he wandered the world in search of treatment, his fanatical opponent, Islamist cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, returned from his 14-year Parisian exile and within a week had engineered the overthrow of the shah’s feeble substitute and installed his own puppet regime. Not only did Iran’s Islamists hail the ayatollah’s return; Carter’s United Nations ambassador, the painfully naïve Andrew Young, lauding Islam as “a vibrant cultural force in today’s world,” prophesied that the ayatollah himself—with ferocious indignation flashing from his eyes and bristling from his beard under his sharia-chic turban—would prove “somewhat of a saint.” On February 15, the saintly imam began murdering Iran’s officer corps, and on April Fool’s Day, which he called “the first day of a government of God,” he declared his nation an Islamic republic. In mid-May, the U.S. Senate condemned Iran’s systematic slaughter of its officers, a rebuke Iran met by recalling its ambassador from Washington. By July, mullahs began publicly taking control of the government.
On October 22, just when the Carter administration and the mullahs seemed to be finding a way to get along, the shah—his eagle-proud face pain-worn and his wasted body too small for his once-resplendent, Gilbert-and-Sullivan-ornate uniform—arrived in New York for cancer treatment. Less than two weeks later, on November 4, a mob of “students” invaded and seized the American embassy in Tehran and took its 68 employees hostage, though they soon released the 15 women and African-Americans, and later set free another hostage suffering from multiple sclerosis. The other 52 Americans endured 444 days of captivity. How far the mullahs engineered this feat as retribution for America’s welcome of the shah is unknown; their initial assurances that all would be well would prove consistent with Iran’s habitual double-dealing.
Carter’s initial response was entirely correct. On November 14, a fleet of U.S. warships sped into the Indian Ocean. But then Carter entangled himself in a bewildering web of fruitless international negotiations at the UN and the World Court, organizations whose keynote is cynicism and bad faith, and whose chief product is hot air not action.
What the president should have done, as was clear even then, was simple and traditional. He should have told the mullahs that they had 48 hours to release our citizens unharmed, or else we would leave not one stone standing on another in the “holy” city of Qom. We then should have leafleted the city with warnings to the population to flee. And, were the hostages not released, we should have done what we threatened to do. And were they not released at that point, we should have made the same threat against Tehran.
My own belief is that the initial threat would have succeeded. The mullahs would have said, “Oh, you know how unruly these students are, how immature, how hot-headed; but don’t worry. We will get them into line and get your citizens back to you. The embassy seizure shocked us as much as it did you.”
But suppose I am wrong. Suppose the mullahs had defied Carter. Then we might have lost 53 of our countrymen and an untold number of Persians whom their tyrannical rulers might have held in the city as human shields. Being a world leader, however, sometimes requires making such harrowing choices. To prevent the powerful French fleet in Algeria from falling into Nazi hands after the 1940 Vichy surrender to Germany, British prime minister Winston Churchill ordered the Royal Navy to seize or sink it, if its commanders did not get it out of Nazi reach, thus protecting Britain’s vital mastery of the seas. A single pigheaded French admiral failed to choose any of the three honorable options Churchill offered. As a result, 1,297 innocent French sailors went to their watery graves after the British fleet opened fire on July 3, with 977 dying in the first 15 minutes. Also as a result, skeptical Americans finally came to believe that Churchill wasn’t kidding when he said that the British would never surrender, and the U. S. government took a giant step closer to joining the war. As sociologist Max Weber warned, anyone who wants to keep his hands clean should stay out of politics, because politics ultimately rests on the force and violence necessary to repel force and violence against one’s countrymen. And force and violence, however legitimate and productive of ultimate good, also produce evil in the process.
So what good might have come from bombing Iran in 1979? The Persian people might have changed their government and spared themselves three decades of tyranny: a secular autocrat is generally better than a theocratic dictator for a Muslim people culturally unready for democracy—as the shah was better than the ayatollah, and as Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seems by a long chalk an improvement on the deposed Mohammed Morsi. From Iran’s warm welcome of the Shiite hijackers of an Alitalia jetliner a month before the American embassy seizure, right up to today, the mullahs have been avid supporters of Islamic terrorism, and with their enthusiastic backing of Hezbollah, they have become state sponsors of terrorism, as well. For more than a decade, the regime has been trying to make a nuclear weapon; and the idea of nuclear-armed millenarian fanatics emerging as hegemons out of the Middle East’s current anarchy, sparking a nuclear arms race in that hair-trigger region, is unsettling, at best.
For the United States, bombing Iran in 1979 would have given the world proof of America’s resolve as a global superpower not to be attacked with impunity—as it was in the 1983 bombing of U.S. marine barracks in Lebanon, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, or the al Qaida-directed bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. That is the point of a superpower’s disregard of the shibboleth of “proportionality” in its response to adversaries: to show indomitable might and unshakable will. Who knows whether it might have discouraged the 2001 World Trade Center destruction? But it’s my guess that Osama bin Laden learned his technique of recruiting followers by distributing audio tapes from Khomeini, who first organized the Iranian revolution using audio tapes sent from Paris. I’m pretty sure I heard one of bin Laden’s tapes in a taxi driven by a man in full hajji garb on 9/8/2001, and you didn’t have to speak Arabic to understand its message of murderous hate.
So now President Obama wants to make an agreement that will ensure that Iran can produce an atom bomb essentially overnight. He has not seen fit to explain his reasoning to the American people, and it is hard to imagine what it might be. But all I can think of is Churchill’s rebuke to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain when he returned from his infamous appeasement of Hitler in Munch in 1938. “You were given the choice between war and dishonor,” Churchill thundered in Parliament. “You chose dishonor, and you will have war.” Certainly President Obama is choosing dishonor. What kind of war he might unleash, the world watches with dread.