National Review / Digital
Iranian End Game
The U.S. must settle for nothing less than checkmate


For almost a third of a century, the Islamic Republic of Iran has confounded American presidents. It has taken hostages, conducted terrorism, undermined the Middle East peace process, and worked unrelentingly to become a nuclear power and develop missiles with global reach. Tehran might frustrate American officials, but its tactics and its efforts to bolster its strategic position are both predictable and reflective of Iran’s sense of its history and culture, as well as the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary ideology and his profound disdain for the United States.

Every president since Jimmy Carter, with the exception of Bill Clinton, has faced Iranian hostage-taking, either in Iran or in Lebanon. Even the reformists with whom Clinton and President Obama have sought to engage unapologetically endorse this practice. Mohammad Khatami, best known for his rhetorical calls for a dialogue of civilizations, penned an article in the hard-line daily Kayhan praising the embassy hostage-takers. Upon becoming president, he appointed their spokeswoman, Masoumeh Ebtekar, to be his vice president.

During President Obama’s term, Iran has seized and released Roxana Saberi, a former Miss North Dakota working as a freelance reporter, and three naïve American hikers as well. Retired FBI agent Robert Levinson, who disappeared in Iran almost five years ago, is alive; he remains America’s longest-kept hostage.

Every president since Jimmy Carter has also faced a terrorist challenge from Iran. Long before a Drug Enforcement Administration informant blew the whistle this year on an Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C., the Iranian embassy hired the radical black nationalist Dawud Salahuddin, an American convert to Islam, to kill a Shah-era diplomat in Bethesda, Md. When President Reagan ordered peacekeepers into Lebanon, Tehran responded by ordering an attack on their barracks, killing 241. In 1996 Iranian-trained Saudi terrorists detonated a truck bomb at the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 U.S. airmen billeted there. And while critics say George W. Bush exaggerated the Iraq€’al-Qaeda link, the 9/11 Commission Report details considerable Iranian assistance to the militant Sunni group beginning in 1991. In the decade since 9/11, Iran’s Quds Force has been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Neither the Islamic Republic’s behavior nor its defiance should surprise. While Obama hopes that the Islamic Republic will unclench its fist, Iranian behavior simply reflects the worldview underpinning the regime. The Islamic Republic cannot reform and become a responsible member of the international community, because the ideology that defines its revolution places it in perpetual opposition to Western notions of liberal democracy.

The Islamic Revolution is inseparable from Ayatollah Khomeini. Its roots lay in his radical reinterpretation of Islamic jurisprudence. While traditional Shiites dismissed clerical rule as a usurpation of the messiah’s role, Khomeini had, since 1970, argued that an ayatollah could act as the deputy on earth of the Mahdi — Shiism’s messianic figure.

Many American diplomats welcomed Khomeini’s Feb. 1, 1979, return to Iran. As national-security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski explained in his memoirs, “The lower echelons at State, notably the head of the Iran Desk . . . were motivated by doctrinal dislike of the Shah and simply wanted him out of power.” Journalists took Khomeini at his word when he assured them that he had no interest in personal power.

When a referendum two months later overwhelmingly confirmed the Iranian people’s desire for an Islamic republic, Khomeini declared it to be “the first day of God’s government.” He defined the new system to be radical in every way: “It should transform our education and judicial systems, as well as all the ministries and government offices that are now run on Western lines or in slavish imitation of Western models.”

Iranian rejection of the West was not Khomeini’s creation. In 1962, Iranian writer Jalal Al-e Ahmad condemned the Iranian association of the West with modernity as “Westoxification,” a sickness. Khomeini’s xenophobia therefore appealed not only to a religious constituency, but also more broadly to Iranian intellectuals.


December 19, 2011    |     Volume LXIII, No. 23

  • It’s Europe vs. the Europeans.
  • It requires blocking the world court’s overreach.
  • Now is no time for more force reductions in Afghanistan.
  • A well-intentioned New Jersey law does more harm than good.
  • China’s experience with high-speed rail provides a cautionary tale.
  • How the EPA is killing America’s energy industry.
  • The Nobel peace committee divides its 2011 prize wisely.
  • Beware Wall Street efforts to reoccupy the Republican party.
  • Why the former Massachusetts governor deserves the GOP nomination
  • A 34-year-old GOP star eyes an Ohio Senate seat
  • The U.S. must settle for nothing less than checkmate.
Books, Arts & Manners
  • Victor Davis Hanson reviews Conquered into Liberty: Two Centuries of Battles along the Great Warpath that Made the American Way of War, by Eliot A. Cohen.
  • John Derbyshire reviews The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker.
  • Kyle Smith reviews Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone: The Essential Writing of Hunter S. Thompson, edited by Jann S. Wenner.
  • Randy Boyagoda reviews The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides.
  • Ross Douthat reviews The Descendants.
  • Richard Brookhiser tours his stores.
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .