Obama, Carter, and the Missing Words on Iran
Our current president’s rhetoric on Iran doesn’t even stand up to Jimmy Carter’s.

Jimmy Carter shakes hands with his vice president prior to delivering the 1980 State of the Union.


Elliott Abrams

American interests and allies in the Persian Gulf are threatened. What’s needed is a clear and tough statement right from the top, so the president starts making speeches. What does he say?

That depends on whether it’s Jimmy Carter in 1980 or Barack Obama in 2012. Jimmy Carter in 1980 was a lot tougher.

Nineteen-seventy-nine had been a year of American setbacks around the globe. Before the year began, Cuban troops were already roaming Angola, and a pro-Communist regime ruled Ethiopia. In 1979 the Sandinistas seized power in Nicaragua, a coup put leftists in charge in Grenada, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the Shah left Iran in January, and in November mobs captured the U.S. Embassy and took more than 60 American hostages. All this was a shock to Carter and his followers, who had come to office seeking to junk the perceived hard line of the Nixon and Ford administrations. In January 1977, U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young had said the Cubans were a “force for stability” in Angola. In May of that year, President Carter had criticized the “intellectual and moral poverty” of our past policies and said, “we are now free of that inordinate fear of Communism” that had previously distorted our foreign affairs.

In response to the terrible events of 1979, Carter changed his tune. In his January 1980 State of the Union address, Carter began on an ominous note: “The 1980s have been born in turmoil, strife, and change. . . . At this time in Iran, 50 Americans are still held captive, innocent victims of terrorism and anarchy. Also at this moment, massive Soviet troops are attempting to subjugate the fiercely independent and deeply religious people of Afghanistan.”

Carter then assessed the threat: “Soviet military forces [are] close to the Straits of Hormuz, a waterway through which most of the world’s oil must flow. The Soviet Union is now attempting to consolidate a strategic position, therefore, that poses a grave threat to the free movement of Middle East oil.”

And then he stated what came to be known as the Carter Doctrine: “Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

President Obama’s statements do not meet these standards. Like Carter, he attempted in his early stance to move away from the policies of his predecessor — especially when it came to Iran. Even before being inaugurated, Obama said in January 2009 that “we are going to have to take a new approach” to Iran; he said he believed “that engagement is the place to start,” meaning “a new emphasis on respect and a new willingness on being willing to talk.” Marking the 30th anniversary of the hostage crisis in November 2009, Obama said that “the United States of America wants to move beyond this past, and seeks a relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran based upon mutual interests and mutual respect.” He sent two secret letters to Ayatollah Khamenei in 2009, and in August 2010 was still “talking engagement with Iran.”

But three years of seeking engagement have manifestly failed. Obama has admitted that his offers of dialogue were “quickly rebuffed by the Iranian regime.” The IAEA reports that “Iran is not providing the necessary cooperation” and has “expressed its deep and increasing concern about the unresolved issues regarding the Iranian nuclear programme, including those which need to be clarified to exclude the existence of possible military dimensions.”