Iran holds all the records for sponsoring, harboring, fostering, and launching terrorism. It tops the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, and it richly deserves its gold medal. When the Ayatollah Khomeini toppled the shah in 1979, he already had a terrorist organization in place: the Revolutionary Guards, who had been trained by the Middle East’s master terrorist, Yasser Arafat. From that solid base, Iranian-sponsored terrorism metastasized, and now includes most all the leading elements of the terrorist galaxy, from Islamic Jihad to Hamas, al Qaeda, and, of course, Hezbollah, the worst of them all, and a direct creation of the Iranian regime itself.
There is no dispute over Iran’s preeminent role, even among those experts who shrink from its consequences. Yet Western governments, even the Bush administration, have steadfastly refused to do the one thing that the facts demand: design and conduct a policy to help the Iranian people fulfill their desire for freedom, and bring down the murderous regime in Tehran. Unlike the war against Iraq, it doesn’t require bombs or bullets, only the usual kind of financial and moral support we have given to so many freedom fighters in the past.
No one even wants to think about it. Indeed, the European Union has been busily trying to normalize trade relations with Iran, and its “foreign minister,” Chris Patten, recently made warm gurgly sounds after meeting with Iranian parliamentarians who regaled him with stories of good government in the Islamic Republic. Or so he thought; in reality he was talking to imposters pretending to be elected deputies, and they had a god laugh afterwards at the gullibility of their celebrated interlocutor.
The United States is not free of similar impulses to appease the mullahs, and the Department of State is, of course, the headquarters for those who want to have better relations with our prime terrorist enemies. Were it not for President Bush’s clear-eyed understanding of the true nature of the Tehran regime, we would no doubt have arranged a détente, in keeping with the vision of Policy Planning Director Richard Haass, who considers appeasing Iran and working out a deal with its tyrants an “historic opportunity.” Not even the president’s repeated denunciations of the Iranian regime have convinced Haass and such cohorts as Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage, who last Friday inexplicably proclaimed Iran a “democracy.” Somebody ought to make him memorize the words of the (appointed) Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei, less than two weeks ago: “Today, those [in Iran] who spread slogans such as reform, liberty, democracy [and] human rights … are fighting religion.” Khamenei termed such ideas “demonic and colonialist.”
That a famously tough-minded man like Armitage would buy into the fantastic notion that the Iranian clerical fascist dictatorship is somehow democratic is a breathtaking example of Western leaders’ search for reasons to avoid coming to grips with Iran, even though they know they should do everything possible to liberate it. The most common excuse they give for their inaction is their belief that Iran will take care of itself, that the Iranian people — whose contempt for the regime is manifest — will eventually rise up and overthrow the mullahcracy. It’s their country, after all, so why should we take the political risks involved?
It’s a legitimate question, to which the proper response is another question: Why are the Iranian people less worthy of our support than the Yugoslavs under Milosevic or the Philipinoes under Marcos’s two rotten regimes that did not threaten our national security, were not racing hell-bent to develop weapons of mass destruction, and did not harbor Osama bin Laden, his family, and his followers?
The current paralysis is eerily similar to the one that gripped Jimmy Carter’s administration in 1979, as the fall of the shah became ever more likely. Then, too, it seemed imperative for us to act. Then, as today, the actions required were political, not military: We should have encouraged the shah to fight for his throne. Instead, we wrapped ourselves in the mantle of political correctness, warned him about the use of violence, insisted that his troops use rubber bullets, demanded that he permit freedom of assembly, and mumbled reassuring words about the Ayatollah Khomeini. Andrew Young remarked that he was, after all, “a religious man.”
Then, as today, we told ourselves that it was their country, not ours, that the shah was fully capable of acting, and that he undoubtedly would. Why should we take the political risks involved in vigorously supporting him? In one of those fascinating historical moments when two sides are looking into opposite sides of the same distorted mirror, the shah reasoned that Iran was a major American concern, that if we wished to save him we certainly would, and if we wished him to leave he could not possibly resist. Why should he get his hands dirty by fighting the mobs in the streets? He was overthrown, we suffered a monumental setback, radical jihadism took root, and the Iranian people began 24 years of misery.
No doubt there are some events that occur because great historical forces have been unleashed, and men are powerless to reverse the tide. But these are very rare. For the most part, things happen because leaders and other brave people make them happen. The frightening facts about Iran, the odious nature of its regime, and the brave resistance of the Iranian people all cry out for Western action. While it is possible that the Iranians may eventually rid themselves of their oppressive clerics, it is also possible that the regime will prevail. Repression works, tyrannies endure, and a regime that is willing to kill anyone who challenges it — and the mullahs have not shown any unwillingness to kill, torture, and intimidate — can last a very long time. But both the Iranian people and the mullahs believe that American action would change the balance of power, and liberate the country.
The liberation of Iran would be the greatest imaginable triumph in the war against terrorism, as well as the fulfillment of America’s mission to support freedom fighters against their tyrants. As in the war against Iraq, we have already waited far too long to get on with it.
— Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. Ledeen, Resident Scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute, can be reached through Benador Associates.