The latest dump of classified WikiLeaks documents shows a few important facts: (1) The United States military unavoidably classifies a mountain of documents because of the easy loquacity of modern computerized warfare; (2) the release of these documents provides no startling revelations—anyone who’d read the liberal Iraqi émigré Kanan Makiya’s writings in the 1980s and 1990s knew the savage potential for internecine conflict in Iraq; former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his “light-footprint” generals Tommy Franks and John Abizaid were derelict in their duty to preserve order after Saddam Hussein’s fall; and (3) the Iranians have been wicked in Mesopotamia.
This last point deserves further comment since it is of some importance in understanding how to approach the Islamic Republic today. The Democratic foreign policy establishment during George W. Bush’s presidency became enamored of the idea that a U.S.-Iranian dialogue was possible if only opposition from the White House could be overcome. That former Clinton administration officials—who had watched President Clinton and Secretary of State Albright apologize repeatedly for American and Western perfidy against Iran, and subsequently had witnessed the collapse of Mohammad Khatami’s reformist presidency—would think Barack Obama might succeed is testimony to both Obama’s charisma and the Democrats’ distaste for Bush. It’s also evidence of how impervious American foreign policy often is to the words and actions of foreigners: No matter how many times Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei expresses his disgust for America (“Satan incarnate,” “world-devourer,” “the enemy of Islam”), diplomats, academics, and think tankers remain convinced that the real, inner Khamenei is a pragmatist.
The truth about President Bush: Until 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Iran point-man Nicholas Burns seemed open to high-level discussions with Khamenei’s representatives, if only Iran’s über-theocrat would allow such talks. In particular, Burns appeared to believe that Iran, after the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, wanted to deal with the United States. Like many foreign-policy cognoscenti, he thought Tehran desired direct negotiations, conceivably leading to the reestablishment of diplomatic ties. This openness to diplomacy may not have reflected President Bush’s soul, but it suggests greater ideological flexibility in the Bush White House vis-à-vis Iran than is often assumed.
All flexibility evaporated in 2006, however, in part because, as we now see from the WikiLeaks cables, the information streaming out of Iraq about Iranian actions there was damning. Tehran was not only exporting lethal weaponry to Iraq, especially the deadly Explosively Formed Penetrator projectiles aimed at American and British armored vehicles and high-powered, high-caliber sniper rifles that could punch through concrete, but also training Iraqi assassination teams in Iran and Iraq. These teams regularly killed Shiite Iraqi officials, chosen either because they were critical of Iran or because, as the Wiki-Leaks documents imply, random killings of officials caused instability in the country. Inside Iraq, Qods Force officers were actually guiding militant Iraqi Shiite forces in their actions. It’s hard to know how many Americans Iranian-aided operations killed, but the number is surely in the hundreds. Simultaneously, the Lebanon war in the summer of 2006, where Israel took on an Iranian-armed and trained Hezbollah, did nothing to engender warm feelings in Washington for Khamenei and his men.
If the chronology of the Wiki-Leaks information, as reported by the New York Times, is correct, President Obama was extending an olive branch to Tehran while Iran continued its lethal activity in Iraq (and increased its nefarious involvement in Afghanistan). Again, this isn’t really news for those who’ve followed Iraq: Wiki-Leaks just provides some of the official paper flow that piles up from the field and is raw material for briefing memos for senior officials and occasionally even the President’s Daily Brief. Obama presumably extended his hand to Khamenei not because the president is slow to anger when aggrieved Third Worlders kill Americans, but because he saw Iranian activity in Iraq, deplorable as it was, as somehow extricable from Iranian foreign policy toward the United States.
In March 2009, Obama made a big Iran speech, in which he called for an “engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect” and quoted from the 13th-century poet Saadi to emphasize his good will and appreciation for things Persian (“The children of Adam are limbs of one body, Which God created from one essence”). He undoubtedly believed that “negative preconceptions”—Obama used the phrase in a widely watched Al-Arabiya television interview six days after his inauguration—lay at the heart of the tension between Iran and the United States. Not incompatible ideas and ideals, but “negative preconceptions.” President Obama apparently thought he could do a better job than his predecessors of lifting the veil of American ignorance. He was willing to try even though engagement with “repressive regimes,” as he noted in his December 2009 Nobel Peace Prize speech, “lacks the satisfying purity of indignation.”
But the problem for President Obama, then and now, is that Ali Khamenei and his inner circle really like to kill Americans. They had relatively few opportunities to do so before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But those wars have brought American targets near. The Iranians are killing Americans not as Persian dynasties once fought the intrusions of Byzantines from the West and marauding Turkic horsemen from the East, because they are invaders. They’re targeting Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan because they can do so easily. It doesn’t help that Washington has been trying to establish in Iraq a Shiite-led democratic system that, if it starts to function properly, will complicate Khamenei’s despotic rule in Shiite Iran. We may not see much significance in the fact that the regime-shaking, pro-democracy Green Movement developed after America established “outposts” in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Khamenei and his guards undoubtedly do.
President Obama’s appeal for direct, unconditional talks was upsetting to Khamenei—his “Satan incarnate” response soon followed—because it reinforced and amplified the all-consuming internal Iranian debate about authenticity and cultural collaboration. Can you be a good Iranian Muslim and not loathe the United States? Can you be a good Muslim and also say, as former president Khatami does, that the Western tradition of liberal democracy has actually developed better protections for many important human rights than has Islamic civilization? Can you be a good Muslim and say, as the respected 74-year-old dissident cleric Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari does, that Iran—the Muslim world—needs a revolution in religious thinking that would free the government from the scriptural dictates of the Holy Law and free the faithful from the politicized clergy? Or must you believe, as Khamenei does, that “there is no way to preserve the [Islamic] revolution except by resisting the United States” and all the insidious things it represents?
Obama sallied forth into a land in the midst of a cultural counterrevolution and didn’t know it. He has had difficulty grasping the ideological nature of the conflict between the United States and Iran in part because he doesn’t see the ideological war within Islam itself. If he did grasp it, the worldview expressed in his “New Beginning” Cairo speech in June 2009 would unravel. If devout Iranians define their Islamic identity as implacably hostile to the United States and Western culture, little running room is left for the president’s felicitous intentions. It makes Tehran’s possession of nuclear weapons more problematic.
Although the administration is almost giddy about the success of its sanctions policy, which is hurting the regime economically and spiritually, Khamenei is likely to win the nuclear tug-of-war with the West: Despite the pain, he’ll probably get the bomb. And as Tehran gets closer to possessing a nuclear weapon, overcoming all the obstacles the West has thrown in its way, there is a serious danger that hubris will get the better of Khamenei and his men.
Their nuclear victory, moreover, is likely to coincide with a victory over their internal opposition. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad see these things as connected: When Kayhan, the newspaper of preference for Khamenei’s ruminations, tells us that the principal reason the West aided the Green Movement’s rise was to stop Iran’s nuclear program (an utterly false charge since the West didn’t help the Green Movement), we glimpse the conspiracy thinking of Tehran’s ruling elite. It is often hard for Westerners to comprehend the extent to which towtieh, con spiracy, permeates the world view of those who rule the Islamic Republic; a defining feature of the lay and clerical dissident intellectuals who’ve propelled Iran’s cultural reformation since the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989 is their relative freedom from the conspiratorial swamp in which Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards live. The opposition sees the sins (and virtues) of the West more maturely. They blame Iranians for many, if not most, of their country’s debilitating problems. In doing so, they only prove to Khamenei and his kind that the internal critics of the regime are “tools of the West.”
What Washington really needs to worry about is the possibility that the Iranian regime, which violently attacks the opposition at home, will similarly attack the far greater evil abroad. Once he has the bomb, inspired by that victory over the West, Khamenei may much more vigorously push back against the United States.
And President Obama invites the test of wills. As determined as the president may be to continue the fight in Afghanistan, the image of America that he conveys—the one portrayed by Bob Woodward in Obama’s Wars—is of a nation eager to flee Afghanistan and Iraq and fight no more wars in the Middle East, no matter the provocation. President Obama has many virtues; embracing the job of commander in chief is not one of them. Add the psychological effect on Iran’s ruling elite of the West’s punishing sanctions, plus Khamenei’s personal distaste for Obama, and you’ve got a recipe for a rebirth of much more vigorous Iranian terrorism against the United States. What we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan (where the Iranians reportedly are now supplying ground-to-air missiles to the Taliban) is likely just a foretaste of what’s to come.
President Bush made a serious mistake in not militarily confronting Iran when Khamenei started gunning for Americans and Shiites in Iraq. Bombing runs on a few Revolutionary Guard facilities would have sent a clear signal that any loss of American life would bring lethal retaliation. Such actions would have helped convey the message that Khamenei’s pursuit of nuclear weapons will not diminish America’s resolve to confront Tehran militarily if its hubris gets out of hand. To avoid a repeat of Khobar Towers, where the Iranians orchestrated a deadly terrorist attack against American personnel in Saudi Arabia in 1996, we should have shown that we would retaliate for any loss of American life.
Bush’s mistake has been compounded by President Obama, who cannot possibly pretend to have the Nixonian I-might-just-bomb-the-blank-out-of-you gene. Many in the Democratic party, and more than a few in the Republican party, would like to play down the Iranian threat, comforting themselves with historically dubious Cold War parallels, emphasizing America’s “measured resolve” against the Soviet Union. But the Soviet Union would never have given laissez-passers to members of al Qaeda, as Iran did after the embassy bombings in Africa in 1998. And Soviet and East German support to the Palestine Liberation Organization was positively benign by comparison with the aid that Iran has given a wide variety of Islamic terrorist organizations.
The Islamic Republic is a different type of menace from the Soviet Union, with a much more vicious, America-centric ideology at work among the regime’s hardcore. We are fortunate that this ideology is contained within a state that has assets we can destroy. But Tehran needs to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that we are prepared to shake the foundations of the Islamic Republic if it continues to kill Americans.
If the press reports are true about Iran now supplying surface-to-air missiles to the Taliban, then we are asking for Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards to hit us even harder if we don’t respond militarily to their provocation. Such weaponry is a significant escalation over Explosively Formed Penetrators. Any serious threat to American and NATO helicopters in Afghanistan could be militarily and politically paralyzing. As the WikiLeaks documents reveal, Iran is a connoisseur of Machtpolitik, which remains, alas, the Middle Eastern way of measuring men and their faiths. Iran’s great Sufi poets of brotherhood and love are so cherished by ordinary Persians because the country’s rulers have so often ruthlessly worshipped power. If the United States is to win in Afghanistan, President Obama will need to read Saadi less and Khomeini more.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.