Since 1979, no one in the United States has figured out a good way to handle the regime in Tehran. For 40 years, we’ve been having the same arguments, and no matter what we tried, the results were disappointing.
It is hard to overstate just how spectacularly unprepared the U.S. government was for the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The House Intelligence Committee revealed in a January 1979 report that two CIA long-term analyses written in the late 1970s had left policymakers with the impression that the rule of American-aligned Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was stable and strong. The House report cited a 60-page study from August 1977, titled “Iran in the 1980s,” that predicted that “the Shah will be an active participant in Iranian life well into the 1980s” and “there will be no radical change in Iranian political behavior in the near future.” The House also cited the CIA’s separate assessment in 1978, in its report titled “Iran After the Shah,” that “Iran is not in a revolutionary situation or even a ‘pre-revolutionary’ situation.”
Watching in horror as thugs grabbed our blindfolded embassy staff and paraded them before the cameras, Americans instantly learned that this was a regime that had no regard for any international law, traditional diplomacy, or morality. A revived relationship and summit meetings were unthinkable; anyone who met with Iranians on their soil was a potential hostage. The crowd of angry revolutionaries chanted “Death to America,” and the Iranian parliament and other official government meetings and rallies routinely began with the chant. Not even the Soviets began their Politburo meetings like that. By 1987, the regime instituted “Death to America Day.” Their Iranian prime minister introduced the national holiday by saying, “Tomorrow will be . . . a day of God on which America should tremble . . . the day when the arch-Satan will be placed under our feet.”
The odd thing is that no matter what happens between the U.S. and Iran, we keep repeating the same patterns and having the same debates. From the hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy and the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon; to the “Tanker War” and the mines in the Straits of Hormuz in the late ’80s; to the truck-bomb attack on Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996; to Iran’s letting the 9/11 hijackers go through Iranian territory without stamping passports; to IEDs against our soldiers in Iraq . . .
In their eyes, we’ve attacked them in unfair ways: We backed Saddam Hussein during the Iran–Iraq war, imposed sanctions that squeezed the Iranian economy, and in 1988, our Navy blew up two of their oil platforms. That same year, we accidentally shot down one of their civilian airliners. The frustrating reality is that our actions rarely hurt the mullahs and ruling class. Our sanctions made life tougher for the average Iranian, but the mullahs still ate well.
Our relationship with Iran has rarely been predictable. Somehow, during an administration when relations with Iran were openly hostile, when our president was seen as an implacable foe of the Ayatollah, we traded arms for hostages. Our alleged cowboy warmonger president, George W. Bush, avoided direct conflict with the Iranians. Barack Obama seemed to believe that a grand new era of peace, or at least nonconfrontation, was possible. He pushed through a generous deal in exchange for a (supposed) pause in Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. Obama was so eager to get the nuclear deal that he even “derailed an ambitious law enforcement campaign targeting drug trafficking by the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah.”
And throughout it all, the leaders of the regime and at least some of the citizenry continued to chant “Death to America” — even during ongoing talks with the United States about the nuclear program. In 2015, John Kerry told the Iranian government directly to stop the chant. It was particularly unhelpful, he said, in persuading Americans and the world that a deal could be reached and that Tehran would honor its terms. The regime continued using the chant anyway — and in Iraq and elsewhere, the Iranian regime kept directing and financing efforts to bring real death to real Americans.
You can find a lot of experts on the region who will assure you that the chant of “Death to America” is merely rabble-rousing nationalism or some sort of inconsequential gesture to placate “hardliners.” They will assure you that Iran is in fact a sophisticated, multifaceted, democratic, modern society, and that far too many Americans simply can’t understand the nuances of the real Iran. Many Americans apparently make the mistake of concluding that when crowds chant, over and over again, that they want America to die, they mean it.
The American people looked at Iran and saw an implacably malevolent force in power. They were continually told by prominent voices that their perceptions were wrong — as in Fareed Zakaria’s 2009 Newsweek cover piece, “Everything You Think You Know About Iran Is Wrong.” Zakaria has a sterling résumé when it comes to studying foreign affairs — Yale, Harvard, managing editor of Foreign Affairs, adjunct professor at Columbia — and he wrote, in what must have been a heavily researched piece, that Iran’s regime might “be happy with a peaceful civilian [nuclear] program” and that “Iranians aren’t suicidal.” “Iran isn’t a dictatorship,” he declared, and it has a culture of “considerable debate and dissent.” Newsweek‘s readers no doubt concluded that hyperbolic media coverage had obscured the reality of Iran, which was a sophisticated, multifaceted, modern state that is not so scary or brutal after all.
Along with Zakaria, one of the loudest voices insisting that the Iranian regime had been misunderstood and unfairly demonized was New York Times columnist Roger Cohen.
Cohen wrote many columns in early 2009 urging his American audience to “think again about Iran,” and on June 10, 2009, he warned against the “dangerous demonization of it as a totalitarian state.” At the heart of the problem was American policymakers’ reflexive hostility to the Iranian regime: “Radicalism in the Bush White House bred radicalism in Iran, making life easy for Ahmadinejad. President Obama’s outreach, by contrast, has unsettled the regime.”
A month after the Zakaria piece ran, the Iranian regime announced that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won reelection with 60 percent of the vote, a result that many Iranians believed was fraudulent. Thousands of ordinary Iranians took to the streets in protest, in what was described as the biggest uprising by the Iranian people since 1979: “Demonstrations swelled to throngs of hundreds of thousands on some days and were focused in Iran’s main cities and provincial capitals, including Tehran, Tabriz, Isfahan and Shiraz,” the AP reported.
And then the regime crushed them, violently and ruthlessly. More than 100 members of the political opposition were arrested. Government forces shot women such as Neda Agha-Soltan in the street. An estimated 110 people were killed: university students, professors, some killed in government detention centers.
To his credit, Roger Cohen did something you almost ever see a prominent foreign-policy columnist do: He admitted he had been wrong. He had misjudged the Iranian government. “I’ve also argued that, although repressive, the Islamic Republic offers significant margins of freedom by regional standards,” he wrote. “I erred in underestimating the brutality and cynicism of a regime that understands the uses of ruthlessness.” He had been on the ground in Tehran:
Majir Mirpour grabbed me. A purple bruise disfigured his arm. He raised his shirt to show a red wound across his back. “They beat me like a pig,” he said, breathless. “They beat me as I tried to help a woman in tears. I don’t care about the physical pain. It’s the pain in my heart that hurts.”
He looked at me and the rage in his eyes made me want to toss away my notebook.
He wrote that four days after warning about “the dangerous demonization” of Iran.
As for the contention that Iran’s regime might “be happy with a peaceful civilian [nuclear] program,” in September 2009, within a matter of months of Zakaria’s Newsweek cover story, President Obama announced that “the United States, the United Kingdom, and France presented detailed evidence to the IAEA demonstrating that the Islamic Republic of Iran has been building a covert uranium enrichment facility near Qom for several years.”
If you had previously seen Iran as a country dominated by a brutal, dangerously aggressive, regime that had nuclear ambition and that had already demonstrated a willingness to use children to clear minefields and embraced a bloody ferocity that shocked and appalled the West . . . it turns out everything you knew about Iran wasn’t wrong. Everything Fareed Zakaria and Roger Cohen knew, or at least believed, was wrong.
Zakaria and Cohen are not dumb men. But they saw what they wanted to see in Iran. The world would be a better, happier, nicer place if the Iran of 2009 or today lived up to the benign, reasonable portrait that Zakaria and Cohen painted in their reporting. But it’s not. The regime has been clear about who they are, what they want, and what they stand for from the beginning: “Death to America.”
Last week, President Trump moved past the sanctions, exposure of their agents, and all the other measures that have hurt the Tehran regime on the periphery. He went after the chief architect of Iran’s regional aggression and left Qasem Soleimani a corpse on the road to Baghdad International Airport. Maybe this strike will make things worse, in the sense of bringing this constant low-level conflict with the Iranian regime into high-level open conflict. But now everyone in the Iranian regime has a new factor in their calculations: If the Americans can find and kill Qasem Soleimani, they can probably find just about anyone up and down the chain of command. Maybe the audacity of this attack stirs the Iranian leaders into a frenzy — or maybe it gets them to think twice and hesitate and face their own concerns about tit-for-tat escalation into all-out war. Such a war would undoubtedly hurt the United States, but it would devastate Iran.
Nothing else has gotten the United States to the point it desires — where the Iranian regime either drops “Death to America” as a slogan, a goal, and a philosophy, or everyone can genuinely rest assured that it is merely rote agitprop. The strike on Soleimani was something new — an experiment of sorts to see if it can generate the results that 40 years of other approaches have failed to generate. Let’s all hope that a new spirit of caution and prudence takes root in Tehran.