Home inFocus Why the Threat of War Doesn’t Scare Iran

Why the Threat of War Doesn’t Scare Iran

Jonathan Schanzer Summer 2007

In February, British press reported, “U.S. preparations for an air strike against Iran are at an advanced stage.” In March, journalist Seymour Hirsh claimed Washington was “closer to an open confrontation with Iran.” The Bush administration has warned Iran repeatedly to halt its nuclear program and cease funding terror. With talk of war increasing, why won’t Iran back down?

The simplest answer is that Iran embraces a radical interpretation of Islam. However, other nations have embraced such ideologies. These include Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Somalia. No country, with the possible exception of Libya, has so boldly challenged America.

Another answer could be framed around the dangerous delusions of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Only, Iran is also ruled by a powerful Supreme Leader (rahbar) and a parliament (majlis). Thus, Iran is not steered by one man.

Why Iran is undaunted by war is directly linked to Washington’s behavior over time. Indeed, America’s consistently weak responses over nearly three decades have created an emboldened Iran. Nearly every instance in which Iran provoked America, Washington responded weakly.

Caught Off-Guard

In 1979, Iran became the first modern Islamic republic when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a spellbinding cleric, overthrew Iran’s secular Pahlavi dynasty, which ruled Iran since the 1920s. Caught off-guard, the Carter administration attempted to keep channels of communication open, despite a spike in anti-American vitriol. In so doing, President Ronald Reagan wrote in his memoirs, “the Carter administration had sown the seeds of the foreign policy disaster that would later engulf it.” On November 4, 1979, Iranian students seized the U.S. Embassy.

For 444 days, the radicals held 52 Americans hostage. Disinclined to confront Iran, Washington pleaded with the new regime. Representative George Hansen (R-ID) asked Iranian leaders during a visit to Tehran whether congressional hearings might allow Iran to air its grievances against America. Subsequently, 187 U.S. representatives wrote to Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran’s speaker of the Majlis, urging Iran to resolve the crisis. Representatives Benjamin Gilman (R-NY) and Lee Hamilton (D-IN) sent a similar missive in August. Carter’s most decisive action was to invoke the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) to freeze Iran’s assets. After a botched helicopter rescue attempt, America released nearly $8 billion in Iranian assets to free the hostages. America paid ransom.

The next confrontation took place in war-torn Lebanon. When American soldiers arrived for a 1983 peacekeeping mission, they were bloodied by two Iran-sponsored attacks. The first was the April 18 bombing of America’s embassy in Beirut. Six months later came a suicide attack on the U.S. Marine barracks on October 23 that killed 241.

This was America’s first suicide bomb experience. The attack was tied to the Iran-backed Hizbullah. The group’s spiritual guide, Muhammed Hussein Fadlallah, contended that “oppressed nations do not have the technology and destructive weapons America and Europe have. They must thus fight with special means of their own.” These means overwhelmed America. Thanks to a skittish Congress, U.S. forces left Lebanon several months later.

A rash of Islamist violence ensued. America’s embassy in Beirut was bombed on September 20, 1984. Hizbullah was again involved. In December 1984, on a hijacked plane in Tehran, Islamic extremists tortured and murdered two Americans. Radicals abducted more than a dozen Americans in Beirut between March 1984 and January 1985. Finally, in June 1985, Islamic militants hijacked another flight with more than 100 Americans aboard, killing one of them. America did not respond, other than to place Iran on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism in 1984.

Admittedly, the listing enabled Washington to punish Iran with sanctions. Congress banned arms sales to Iran, which desperately needed supplies during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). The punishment of sanctions was offset, however, by the “Iran-Contra Affair” in which Washington sent Iran weapons via Israel in exchange for released hostages. The deal was also designed to reach out to Iranian moderates, including Rafsanjani, to establish ties with Iran’s possible future leaders. At best, America’s policy was one of mixed signals.

U.S. policy was also ambivalent in 1989 during the furor over Salman Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses. Khomeini was enraged by several passages, including one that mocked Islamic laws “about every damn thing, if a man farts let him turn his face to the wind, a rule about which hand to use for the purpose of cleaning one’s behind… sodomy and the missionary position were approved of by the arch-angel, whereas the forbidden postures included all those in which the female was on top.”

Rather than merely condemning the book, Khomeini sentenced Rushdie to death for blasphemy. “In the name of Allah,” he proclaimed, “the author of the book Satanic Verses… and those publishers who were aware of its contents, are sentenced to death. I call on all zealous Muslims to execute them…”

Khomeini’s decree (fatwa) sparked a wave of Islamist violence. Book agents were stabbed, newspaper offices were bombed, and demonstrations turned bloody. Though Rushdie was British, Iranian leaders called the book a “provocative American deed.” As author Daniel Pipes notes, Washington first reacted with “retreat and confusion,” adopting a harder line only when “it became clear that concessions would win nothing in return.” Pipes also notes that President George H.W. Bush dubbed both the book and the fatwa “offensive,” placing both on an equal plane.

Once Rushdie went underground, the early 1990s were relatively quiet. Iran remained neutral during the 1991 Iraq War, while “moderates” such as Rafsanjani ruled Iran, and overt violence against the U.S. was down. Still, anti-Israel terrorism was up, thanks to Iran’s funding of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hizbullah. Further, Iran supported Sudan, a country that supported and trained numerous terrorist groups, and provided safe haven to Carlos the Jackal and a relatively unknown Usama bin Laden.

The Clinton Years

Iran policy in the early 1990s was opaque. Despite the sanctions, the United States was the eighth largest exporter to Iran in 1993. American oil companies were also buying approximately 30 percent of Iran’s oil exports. Concurrently, President Bill Clinton adopted his 1993 “Dual Containment” strategy against Iran and Iraq, thereby blocking Iran’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and funding to terrorists. Two years later he signed an executive order banning trade with Iran. Republicans charged that Clinton did not take the threat of Iran seriously enough. The “Contract with America,” however, gave Iran little thought. It merely affirmed a commitment to defend against “missile attacks from terrorist states,” including Iran.

In 1996, Iran renewed its attacks against the United States. On June 25, a truck bomb exploded at the Khobar Towers complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 19 American servicemen and injuring more than 500. The Saudi Hizbullah, an Iran proxy, was responsible. Washington’s response was a five-year legal probe. The following year, Congress passed the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA). But the legislation would never have been passed without the America Israel Public Affairs Committee. AIPAC was instrumental in crafting the Iran portion, which levied sanctions against companies that invested $40 million or more in Iranian oil or gas.

Beginning in 1997, relations thawed as Iran elected by a landslide Mohammed Khatami, a self-styled moderate, which Clinton touted as a “hopeful sign.” Hailed as “Ayatollah Gorbachev,” Khatami called for “civilizational dialogue.” Unfortunately, while Secretary of State Madeline Albright proudly cheered “signs of change,” Khatami’s Iran continued to openly fund Hizbullah, assassinated Iranian dissidents, and developed long-range missiles. Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, still regarded America as an “enemy of [Iran’s] Islamic government.”

According to former FBI Director Louis Freeh, Khatami admitted the Khobar attack had been executed on Khamenei’s orders. Clinton’s memoirs also noted “the possibility of Iran’s support for the [Khobar] terrorists.” Still, the President pushed for rapprochement. In 1998, he waived sanctions against the French firm Total when its investment in Iranian oil should have triggered ILSA sanctions. As Freeh stated, the administration “miserably failed to seek any redress,” while Iran believed America “lacked the fortitude to fight a real war.”

Policy Shifts

Iran policy began to shift in the George W. Bush administration. In 2001, when investigations confirmed Iran’s senior leaders, intelligence apparatus, and Revolutionary Guards were behind the Khobar attacks, Congress extended ILSA for five years. After 9/11, during his January 29, 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush named Iran part of the Axis of Evil, a triumvirate of terrorist nations including Iraq and North Korea. Indeed, Washington finally recognized Iran as an enemy.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003, Tehran quickly ensured that the U.S. would be so overwhelmed in Iraq that it wouldn’t consider war with Iran. Iran spends untold millions of dollars per month to destabilize Iraq and undermine U.S. efforts. Iran infiltrated Iraq’s Shi’ite south, funneling funds and support to militias, including Muqtada al-Sadr’s radical “Mahdi Army.” Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) offices and Hizbullah installations also sprung up in Najaf, Karbala, and other southern cities.

Complicating the issue is Iran’s play for nuclear power. U.S., U.K., French, German and Israeli intelligence have all warned that Iran was developing nuclear weapons. Though the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) stated in November 2003 there was “no evidence” of a weapons program, traces of weapons-grade enriched uranium were found. Recent studies assert that Iran is still years from a nuclear weapon, but Iran could achieve a crude bomb much sooner. Moreover, Ahmadinejad insists on Iran’s “inalienable right” to produce nuclear fuel. In late March 2007, the U.N. passed more severe sanctions against Iran, but Iran remains defiant.

Looking Forward

Today, as America challenges Iran to cease its nuclear program, and to quit sponsoring terror, Tehran is undaunted. It believes that Washington will only penalize Iran with tough words and economic sanctions. The mullahs also know they can offset sanctions by creating a minor crisis, such as the kidnapping of British soldiers in March 2007, or a major crisis, such as letting loose Hizbullah to attack Israel in the summer of 2006. Those events sent oil prices soaring, thereby padding Tehran’s pockets.

Washington’s challenge is now a daunting one. America must finally establish deterrence vis-à-vis Iran, after 28 years. It must accomplish this when its allies will not help, either due to fear of military confrontation or economic backlash. Further, Washington’s military options are limited while U.S. forces are already spread thin in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that U.S. servicemen are stationed on either side of Iran – in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps it lies in even more painful sanctions that could lay waste to Iran’s already-hobbled economy. Sadly, diplomacy is not likely to yield results until the next Iranian election in 2009. In the end, only tougher policies will re-establish the deterrence America lost over the course of three decades. Failure to do so will only invite more violence from Tehran.

Jonathan Schanzer, a former Treasury intelligence analyst, is Director of Policy for the Jewish Policy Center, and author of Al-Qaeda’s Armies: Middle East Affiliate Groups and the Next Generation of Terror.