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The Carter and Reagan Approaches to Iran



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U.S. and Iranian diplomats are slated to begin direct bilateral talks today to resolve the crisis over Iran’s illicit nuclear program, which has involved a stockpile of uranium and seeking to convert the material into weapons-grade uranium.

In response to overtures from the major powers offering relief to Iran’s battered, sanctions-burdened economy, the clerical regime in Tehran shows no signs of retreat. Iran’s chief negotiator, Abbas Araqchi, said Sunday, ”We will not allow even a gram of uranium to go out of the country.”

It appears that the United States and its allies in Europe are keen to strike a deal — even a woefully flawed one. President Obama has shown no appetite for imposing even a minimum credible military threat necessary to cause a dramatic change in Iran’s behavior, while Europe would like to see its oil-and-gas companies reenter the lucrative Iranian energy market.

It is worth juxtaposing the Reagan and Carter approaches to the seizure of American embassy personnel in 1979. According to Iranian memoirs, Iran’s supreme leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, did not intend to hold the hostages for a protracted period time. 

But after President Jimmy Carter revealed a docile posture, as in his letter appealing to the revolutionary Khomeini as a fellow religious believer, Iran’s leaders exploited Carter’s weaknesses. The result: 444 days of captivity and a feeble-looking and publicly humiliated America.

Enter Ronald Reagan. The hostages were released minutes after Reagan took the oath of office in 1981. There is no intellectually complex reason for the Iranian reaction; the revolutionary mullahs just viewed Reagan as a president willing to unleash force to exert American power and integrity.

Khomeini once declared, “Islam is politics or it is nothing.” If Iran’s regime understands that it will become non-existent if it insists on remaining an Islamic-animated state, there might, just might, be a solid chance to terminate Iran’s drive to build a nuclear weapon. Intensified economic sanctions coupled with a real military threat could play a decisive role in a negotiated settlement. 

But to reach that end, the resolve of leaders like Churchill and Reagan, not Carter and Obama, is necessary.

— Benjamin Weinthal is a Berlin-based fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Benjamin on Twitter at @BenWeinthal.



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