Our Other Foreign Policy of Stale Orthodoxy: Iran
Where, exactly, did “diplomatic engagement” get us?
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Next to the conflict between Israelis and Arabs, the war between the U.S. and Iran is the most significant illustration of our failed foreign policy idealism. The fact that we don’t consider it “war” –– despite the fact that the prime mover of the Iranian Islamic Revolution, the Ayatollah Khomeini, formally declared war on us –– is itself evidence of our myopic idealism. Calling the conflict what it is would force us to admit that 43 years of “diplomatic engagement” have failed at stopping wars.
Now, however, the wages of that delusional policy are more dangerous than ever. Iran has just announced that it has enriched enough uranium to quickly produce a nuclear weapon, the Gatestone Institution reports, and has over 3000 missiles, many capable of delivering nuclear bombs. Also worrisome is Russia’s recent visit to Iran to strengthen their geopolitical marriage of convenience. Both nations are facilitating each other’s evasion of Western sanctions, and Iran is slated to sell several hundred advanced drones to Russia and providing training in their use, while Russia may reciprocate by providing the mullahs with its advanced S-400 and S-500 air defense systems.
So, all that our decades of reliance on the “democratic, rules-based international order” has got us is a fanatic, illiberal, revanchist, oil-rich regime on the brink of possessing weapons of mass destruction.
The central illusion vitiating our foreign policy is the global primacy given to national self-determination and representative government. From this assumption has followed the anticolonialism narrative fostered by the postwar UN and Soviet communism as a weapon for discrediting the Western nations arrayed against the Soviet Union. Nationalism, after all, was a Western development, one anathema to a universal creed like communism. But it provide the perfect ideological camouflage for the postwar anticolonial “liberation” movements hijacked by Comintern and KGB agents.
In the case of the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1978-79, the U.S. foreign policy establishment characterized the fall of Shah Reza Pahlavi as the consequence of our sacrifice of Iranians’ aspirations for national self-determination, democratic governance, civil liberties, and human rights in order to support the brutal, autocratic Shah. The key crime in this indictment is the alleged coup the CIA and MI6 carried out to remove Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq and reverse his nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which controlled Iran’s oil industry.
But as Council of Foreign Relations scholar Ray Takeyh writes, for decades this
coup has provided an upsetting narrative in which a malevolent America strangled a nascent Persian democracy because Iran dared to nationalize its oil. And the destruction wrought by the United States wasn’t just about profits, according to the narrative. It’s that the American imperium could not tolerate neutralism in the Third World in the 1950s and needed compliant and brutal allies like the Shah of Iran. Thus, supposedly, imperialism and greed came together to deliver a deadly blow to a nation seeking self-determination.
Like the “land for peace” canard dominating the Israeli-Arab conflict, this false narrative about the “coup” has become American foreign-policy gospel for understanding the Iranian Revolution and Iran’s intransigent hostility towards the U.S., the mullahs’ “Great Satan.” Barack Obama, for example, in his 2009 Cairo speech to the Muslim world, repeated this institutional received wisdom when he said with all the confidence of someone repeating an obvious fact, “In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of the democratically elected Iranian government.”
But as Takeyh explains, this statement is not a fact:
To begin with: Mossadeq had not been democratically elected. And far from being a paragon of democratic virtue, he was not beyond using unconstitutional and illegal methods to sustain his power. Both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations had sincerely sought to craft a fair compromise between Iran and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company whose assets Mossadeq had nationalized. And most important, the coup itself was very much an Iranian initiative.
As Takeyh goes on to document, there was no coup engineered by the U.S. The claim that there was is a confection of communist propaganda, home-grown anti-Americanism, and the cynical tactic of dysfunctional states everywhere: “When all else fails, blame the Americans.”
Perhaps even more destructive to our understanding of the Iranian Revolution has been the continued underestimation of its religious roots and the purpose of the Shah’s removal. This neglect, which continues to weaken our understanding of Islam, reflects the diminishment of Christianity’s influence in the public square, and its banishment to the realm of the private and the subjective.
This failure to take religion seriously has compromised our foreign policy when it comes to the Muslim world. In contrast to our dominating secularism, as Bernard Lewis has written, “most Muslim countries are still profoundly Muslim, in a way and in a sense that most Christian countries are no longer Christian,” as demonstrated by great “public authority that is still normal and accepted in most Muslim countries.”
Gratifying, then, our orthodoxy about the universal appeal of national self-determination, representative government, secularism, and civil liberties, we didn’t see that the revolution was mostly a religious movement, a reaction to the Shah’s (and his father’s before him) modernizing policies, such as tolerance for religious minorities and opportunities for women, that violated and challenged Sharia law.
This clerical resistance to the Shah was fomented by the Ayatollah Khomeini, still one of the most revered clerics for Shiite Muslims. In 1962, he said of the Shah’s proposed extension of the franchise to women and religious minorities like the Baha’is and Jews, that the law “was perhaps drawn up by the spies of the Jews and Zionists,” and that “the Qur’an and Islam are in danger.” A year later he warned more ominously, “We [the clerics] have come to the conclusion that the regime also has a more basic aim: they are fundamentally opposed to Islam itself and the existence of a religious class.” That is, they are apostates the Koran instructs must be killed.
Yet in 1979, when Khomeini returned from exile in France to mobs of jubilant supporters, Carter’s foreign policy mavens dismissed or underestimated the role of religion in the revolution. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski “soft-pedaled the specific threat of ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ to American interests,” as historian David Farber writes. Brzezinski predicted that the clerical revolution would stall when confronted by the practical realities of governance, which would require technocrats who would displace the clerics in order to fulfill the alleged liberal democratic aspirations of the Iranian people.
More delusional, and typical of the “rules-based international order” and its dubious assumptions, Brzezinski advised that we pursue relations with Iran on the basis of “shared interests” and “moral and material values,” and that our “support for diversity and our commitment to social justice” could help “deepen our dialogue with the Muslim world,” Farber continues. But what “interests” and “moral values” do we share with a regime that declared war on us and 43 years later still orders daily chants of “Death to America,” and ritually burns U.S. flags?
This naïve and arrogant “new world order” assumption that pious Muslims just want to live like us Westerners makes sense given that hardly anyone in our foreign policy establishment had listened to the many audiocassettes Khomeini sent to Iran from exile in France, or read his books. Those few foreign policy analysts who did read them either played down their importance or dismissed them as forgeries. Instead, historian Barry Rubin writes, “Islamic rhetoric was seen as a mask, a convenient vehicle for expressing accumulated economic, political, and social grievances.”
Moreover, Khomeini was caricatured by media, scholars, and foreign policy officials alike as a “crazy fanatic living in a time warp” and a “ghost from the Middle Ages,” a mere “beard from the fringe” like Charles Manson. Time magazine wrote that Khomeini was a “fanatic whose judgments are harsh, reasoning biazarre, and conclusions surreal.”
But in fact Khomeini was highly educated in Qom, Shiism’s Oxford and Cambridge, and revered as a “grand sign of Allah,” an honorific bestowed only on the most highly learned and pious religious leaders. His sermons were based on traditional Islamic doctrines that conflict with the Western precepts of religious tolerance, freedom, and unalienable rights.
Similarly, the revolution he fathered was not just about Iran, but a global revolution that would restore Islam’s preeminence as the only pathway to happiness in this life and the next. “We shall export our revolution to the whole world,” Khomeini preached. “Until the cry, ‘There is no god but Allah’ resounds over the whole world, there will be struggle.” Hence the creation of the Iranian Republican Guards’ al Quds force, the expeditionary arm responsible for fulfilling this pledge, as they currently are doing in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. And thousands of American lives have been lost in that war.
This is the regime that President Obama and our European allies naively believed could be negotiated out of Iran’s most important project for turning Khomeini’s promise into a reality––nuclear weapons. Donald Trump saw through this appeasement, and withdrew from the feckless “nuclear deal,” restored punitive sanctions, and met Iran’s adventurism with mind-concentrating force. But Joe Biden has resurrected this deal, a showcase for the Western “rules-based international order,” and shamefully groveled to the mullahs who serially have violated the previous deal to the point that they now stand on the brink of fulfilling their quest for nuclear weapons.
If that day comes, we will have our foreign policy stale orthodoxy, our failure of imagination, and our cowering in the proverbial box we are supposed to think outside of, to thank for a more dangerous world.