Iran’s 30-year war against the United States may be reaching its decisive moment. Signs of the worsening crisis abound. Iran just announced it has begun enriching uranium at the Fordo underground nuclear site, a key step to producing more quickly fissile material for a nuclear warhead. As Europe moves closer to embargoing Iranian oil, deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guard Ali Ashraf Nouri threatens, “ If enemies block the export of our oil, we won’t allow a drop of oil to pass through the Strait of Hormuz,” through which about one-fifth of the world’s oil passes. In support of this threat, the regime continues to stage war games in the area and to warn American warships from passing through the strait into the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile the U.S. and Israel have announced a joint missile defense exercise, as Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits America’s enemies in Latin America, bearding the U.S. lion in its own hemisphere of influence.
Iran may be just indulging bluster and bluff. Perhaps the mullahs recall the severe punishment inflicted on its navy in 1988 during the Tanker War, an earlier attempt to disrupt oil shipments transiting the Persian Gulf. That effort ended when Ronald Reagan retaliated for a missile attack on an American warship by eventually destroying two Iranian oil platforms, two Iranian ships, and six Iranian gunboats. Yet our current president has not shown as yet any of Ronald Reagan’s guts and nerve, and the mullahs may be calculating that the bluff will work.
And why wouldn’t they? Iran has been killing Americans for 30 years with impunity, from the 241 military personnel killed in Beirut by a suicide bomber, to the hundreds more soldiers murdered in Iraq and Afghanistan by Iranian proxy terrorist outfits trained and armed by Tehran. Repeated rounds of sanctions, threats, U.N. Security Council resolutions, and deadlines for cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors have been contemptuously ignored. Our citizens are arrested and held on trumped-up charges, our ally Israel is threatened with genocide, and incessant anti-American “Great Satan” rhetoric daily pours from Tehran. Just this week a former American Marine was condemned to death by an Iranian court for allegedly being a spy and a “mohareb,” or “fighter against God.” Yet Obama has answered this aggression against our security and interests with appeasing diplomatic “outreach” offered “without preconditions,” and pleas for “mutual respect” that the regime correctly interprets as a sign of weakness and failure of nerve.
Given that Iranian aggression has so far provoked appeasement and empty threats, the mullahs very well could believe that since they are the “best of nations,” as the Koran has it, in any conflict Allah will protect the Islamic Republic and render insignificant America’s overwhelming military superiority. After all, Muslims for centuries have believed in their superiority based on Allah’s special regard for them, as aviator Antoine de Saint-ExupÃ©ry noted in 1939: “Their [Muslims] pride was born of the illusion of their power. Allah renders a believer invincible.” The mullahs today will remember what the Ayatollah Khomeini said in 1980, after America’s ill-planned and half-hearted mission to rescue the embassy hostages was ignominiously thwarted by a sandstorm that caused two helicopters to crash and burn: “Those sand particles were divinely commissioned. . . . [President] Carter still has not comprehended what kind of people he is facing. . . . Our people is the people of blood and our school is the school of Jihad.”
Thirty years later, we still have not “comprehended” the nature of the Iranian enemy. We have continuously operated with a materialist calculus that ignores the spiritual motives that account for much of Iranian aggression. More depressing still, this is the same mistake the Carter administration made in 1979, when it ignored the religious roots of the Iranian Revolution, dismissed Khomeini as “nutty” and “a crazy man,” as Carter did, and assumed that the secular political parties and technical elites would eventually rule Iran and marginalize the mullahs, virulent Iranian hostility would wane, and “after a transition period common interests could provide a basis for future cooperation,” as an assistant to the Secretary of State reported. Similarly the West today has assumed that economic punishment, or the desire for “greater international integration,” as Obama put it, can change Iranian behavior. We still don’t believe what a member of the Revolutionary Council said a few months after the seizure of our embassy: “No individual, no official and no Muslim has the right to show forbearance or compromise toward an enemy who is not defeated and is not overthrown.”
We sophisticated modern materialists slight these religious motives, dismissing them as throwbacks to the Dark Ages, or cynical pretexts to camouflage the pursuit of the material goods we recognize, such as wealth and power. Because religion in the West has faded into a life-style choice or repository of comforting holiday rituals, we cannot fathom that for other creeds the spiritual world is a living reality in their lives. But even if those beliefs are mere ghosts, they still drive behavior in the here-and-now. As Orwell wrote in 1941 of H.G. Wells, the celebrated champion of internationalism and scientific rationalism, “He was, and is, quite incapable of understanding that nationalism, religious bigotry and feudal loyalty are far more powerful forces than what he himself would describe as sanity. Creatures out of the Dark Ages have come marching into the present, and if they are ghosts they are at any rate ghosts which need a strong magic to lay them.”
The melancholy lesson of history is that force is the “strong magic” that compels fanatical believers to abandon their murderous ideologies or keep them within their own borders. Equivocating about the use of force, or pursuing non-lethal ways to change behavior, such as diplomatic negotiation or economic sanctions, only convinces the fanatic aggressor that he has the gods or history or destiny on his side, that his enemy is weak and lacks conviction, and that a few more blows will achieve the aggressor’s aims. Nor does it matter if the failure to retaliate actually reflects other concerns such as political expediency. There were many reasons Clinton withdrew our forces from Somalia in 1993 after the “Blackhawk Down” battle in which 18 U.S. servicemen were killed, but political self-interest and survival were clearly the most important. Yet to bin Laden, the retreat from Mogadishu was like the withdrawal from Vietnam and Beirut after the Marine barracks bombing: the result of America’s “low spiritual morale” and “cowardice and feebleness.” And that perception fed bin Laden’s certainty that the U.S. rested on “foundations of straw” and could be toppled with spectacular terrorist attacks.
Settling the conflict with Iran and keeping it from acquiring nuclear weapons, then, will in the end be achieved with mind-concentrating force that convinces the mullahs to change their ways. One place to start would be to destroy Iran’s navy and shore missile batteries in the Persian Gulf. Degrading the military assets, bases, and production facilities of the Iranian Republican Guard Corp and the paramilitary Basij might provide an opportunity for the dormant Green Revolutionaries to effect regime change. As Indiana University’s Jamsheed K. Choksy wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “Once the power of the Basij and the IRGC to enforce the regime’s will upon the people has been seriously compromised, it would not be surprising to see large segments of Iran’s population casting off the theocratic yoke.” A saner regime perhaps would be more amenable to abandoning the pursuit of nuclear weapons.
The time is fast running out on policies that refuse to accept the necessity of force in changing Iranian behavior. Military action obviously involves unknowable risks and costs; but allowing a rogue regime, one situated in the middle of a region that produces one-fifth of the world’s oil, to acquire nuclear weapons will likely end up subjecting our security and interests to much greater risks and much higher costs.