Last week, Canada’s Free Thinking Film Society — love that name — was scheduled to screen Iranium, a new documentary about the regime that has ruled Iran since 1979, its drive to acquire nuclear weapons, and the dangers that poses to the West. But then the Iranian embassy complained and — coincidently — threats and “suspicious letters” were received at the National Archives in Ottawa, where the event was to take place. The Archives cancelled the screening and shut the building. Archives spokeswoman Pauline Portelance explained: “We deemed the risk associated with the event was a little too high.”
Apparently, however, officials above her pay grade recognized that allowing Iranian theocrats to set the limits of free speech in Canada’s capital would run an even higher risk. It was given to Minister of Heritage James Moore to deliver a Churchillian response.“This movie will be shown, the agreement will be kept,” he said. “We will not be moving it to a different facility, we’re not bending to any pressure. People need to be kept safe, but we don’t back down to people who try to censor people by threats of violence. Canada does not accept attempts from the Iranian Embassy to dictate what films will and will not be shown in Canada.”
The Canadian screening of Iranium has now been rescheduled for early February. Will Iran’s rulers and supporters accept that decision? Or will they escalate the conflict? While we’re waiting for the answer, it’s worth recalling that the Islamic Republic has a long history of attempting to enforce its will extraterritorially. As early as 1989, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who had led Iran’s revolution ten years earlier, issued a fatwa against a British subject, Salman Rushdie, because Khomeini considered Rushie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, blasphemous. The fatwa called for Rushdie to be executed by any Muslim who could manage the task.
That might have been expected: As Iranium makes clear, Khomeini’s revolution was not just against the Shah of Iran. It was intended for export — and not only to countries in which Muslims are in the majority.
Khomeini’s ambitious goal then, and his successors’ goal now, is “world revolution,” the creation of a universal and “holy” government and the downfall of all others. “Islam is good for you,” Khomeini said. “It is good for the world.” He said this even as — in Stalinist fashion — he was executing at home and assassinating abroad not just those who opposed him but also those who might one day oppose him.
I am among those interviewed in Iranium, along with several other Foundation for Defense of Democracies experts. Also providing analysis and insight: scholar Bernard Lewis, former CIA director Jim Woolsey, Sen. Jon Kyl, and former ambassador John Bolton. But it is really Iran’s despots who tell the story.
For example, in 1980, war broke out between Iran and Iraq. Khomeini sent Iranian children on foot to clear minefields so that regular troops and tanks could pass after. How could a man of faith justify that? He was guaranteeing their entry into Paradise. Iran’s current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, finds poetry in such carnage. “No art is more beautiful,” he is seen in the film telling a group of his acolytes, “more divine and more everlasting” than “the art of martyrdom.”
Khomeini’s successor, the Supreme Leader — an audacious title — Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is candid: America is not just Iran’s enemy; America is the “enemy of Allah” and “the Great Satan.”
It is difficult for us, for Westerners, children of the Enlightenment, to believe that there are rulers of great nations who take such ideas seriously. But if you watch and listen to them — not least in this documentary — it becomes clear that they do. What does that mean for policy? It means that diplomacy, outreach, engagement, and carefully crafted speeches showing respect and apologizing for “grievances” will have limited utility.
Truth be told, Americans have been reaching out to Iran’s theocrats for more than 30 years. Khomeini came to power on Jimmy Carter’s watch. Carter was by no means hostile to him and his revolution. On the contrary, Carter’s U.N. ambassador, Andrew Young, called Khomeini “some kind of saint.” William Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador in Tehran, compared Khomeini to Gandhi. A State Department spokesman at that time worried about the possibility of a military coup against Khomeini, saying that would be “most dangerous for U.S. interests. It would blow away the moderates and invite the majority to unite behind a radical faction.”
In response, Khomeini and his followers, as seen in the film, chanted not only “Death to America!” but also “Death to Carter!” And, of course, less than a year after Khomeini came to power, his followers took over the U.S. embassy, which Khomeini called a “center for corruption,” holding its occupants hostage for 444 days — not exactly the kind of action Gandhi would have endorsed.
Seizing an embassy is an act of war. Carter’s response was, as Bernard Lewis characterized it, “feeble.” Khomeini was gratified to discover that “Americans cannot do a damn thing.”