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The Thirty-Year War

Iran policy goes from failure to failure.

Dec 12, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 13 • By LEE SMITH
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The storming of the British embassy in Tehran last week by the Islamic Republic’s Basij loyalists is evidence that fevered paranoia is now part of the Iranian regime’s decision-making process. In Washington, a confrontation between a Democratic senator and Obama administration officials over Iran sanctions suggests that the White House may have resigned itself to Iran’s acquiring a nuclear bomb. Taken together, these two scenes show that the United States and Iran are moving ever closer to an open war that has been more than three decades in the making.

Photo of The British embassy in Tehran under siege on November 29

The British embassy in Tehran under siege, November 29


It is an index of what has happened during the last 30 years that few were surprised when sovereign British territory was seized last week in the Iranian capital in protest of strong European sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran. After the mob freed captured British diplomats, London recalled its senior staff and threw Iran’s mission out of the British capital. In solidarity, France and Germany withdrew their staff from Iran. Presumably, Paris and Berlin were also fearful of mob attacks on their own envoys. The 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and subsequent bombings of the American embassy in Beirut and the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires have long made it clear that customary inter-national law is no part of the revolutionary regime’s playbook.

Iranian exceptionalism​—​the fact that Tehran’s outrages are tolerated by the international community​—​explains why Western policymakers and deterrence theorists have wasted so much time deliberating whether the clerical regime now marching toward a nuclear weapon is rational. What would constitute abnormal behavior from any other government is considered normal for the Islamic Republic. Had Washington dealt with Tehran like a rational state, the Carter White House would have treated the embassy takeover 30 years ago as an act of war, and responded in kind. (Even veteran diplomat George F. Kennan, a realist’s realist, advocated a declaration of war and the interning of Iranian diplomats in this country.)

Instead, the Carter White House embarked on a secret mission to rescue the hostages, thereby establishing one of the enduring pillars of Washington’s Iran policy​—​clandestine operations. While the United States and its allies, especially Israel, have enjoyed many successes against Iran in the secret war, Tehran is itself much more comfortable operating in the shadows. This is especially so when Washington provides much of the darkness, obscuring, for instance, Iran’s role in killing American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the last month, there have been two blasts at Iranian facilities that are apparently related to the regime’s nuclear weapons program. It’s unclear who is responsible for the explosions, whether it is external actors​—​the U.S., Israeli, or some other intelligence service​—​internal opposition forces, or more likely some combination of the above. Whether it was sabotage or an accident in a program that is by most accounts poorly managed, the result is the same. The explosions are driving the regime crazy. The nuclear weapons program is a vital interest to mullahs whose self-image is built on confrontation, and the blasts erode their prestige. In the short term, the secret war sets back the Iranian bomb with every explosion. But in the long run, this is a success only if Washington’s larger strategy is to lure Iran into making the first move in an open war that will result in the fall of the regime and the destruction of the nuclear weapons program.

Nobody wants war, of course, but at this point it seems no one is going to stop Iran from getting the bomb either. Diplomacy is the second pillar of Washington’s 30-year Iran policy, and after failing to engage the regime, the White House has moved on to a strategy of containment and deterrence that assumes a beefed-up coalition of Gulf Arab states are willing, and able, to push back against Iran. Sanctions were supposed to have been the White House’s fallback position after diplomacy, but the administration apparently fears that certain sanctions targeting Iran’s energy sector will hurt the president’s chances at reelection. A hike in oil prices that might result from going after Iran’s main source of income is not going to help an already moribund U.S. economy rebound in time for November.

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