No president was more concerned with the Islamic revolutionaries’ sensibilities than Jimmy Carter. Even after Iranian militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took American diplomats hostages, Carter hoped to resolve the crisis in a manner that did not jeopardize the possibility of resuming ties with the theocracy. Such deference helped prolong the crisis for 444 days and essentially doomed Carter’s presidency. However, during the long hostage saga, on one occasion, Carter took forceful action and his policy actually worked. After the storming of the embassy, there was much loose talk in Tehran that the U.S. officials would be put on trial. The administration sent a private note to Iran that any harm done to the hostages would provoke American military retaliation. Soon, all the talk of public trial was quietly shelved. This proved to be a lesson not learned, not just by Carter but by many other American statesmen who would go on to deal with Iran.
The Reagan administration may best be known for the Iran-Contra affair, whereby it traded arms for the release of American hostages held in Lebanon by Iran’s Hezbollah proxy. However, the tragic and accidental shooting down of an Iranian commercial airliner in July 1988 was actually critical to ending the Iran-Iraq war. For eight years, Iran had rebuffed all entreaties and offers of diplomatic mediation, as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini held tight to his goal of deposing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein irrespective of the conflict’s human toll. By the summer of 1988, there was an ongoing conflict between American naval ships and Iranian speed boats laying down mines in the Gulf waters. As the confrontation on the high seas was taking place, an Iranian passenger plane was making its way to Dubai. As the aircraft approached, the USS Vincennes mistook it for a hostile vessel and shot it down, killing 290 passengers.
Despite days of mourning and incendiary speeches, Iran’s reaction was basically subdued, as Tehran appreciated that the asymmetry of power militated against escalation of the conflict. The one dramatic consequence of downing the passenger plane was that it finally persuaded the clerical elite that it was time to abandon the war with Iraq—they mistakenly believed the shooting down of the Airbus was a prelude to America entering the war on Saddam’s behalf with the purpose of overthrowing the Islamic Republic. Even Khomeini, who was indifferent to the loss of human life, proved too respectful of American power to persist with a war that he felt might now include the United States. So Khomeini opted for an armistice, which he famously compared to drinking a “poisoned chalice.”
The world’s handling of Iran’s nuclear ambitions is also instructive. For much of its tenure in power, the Islamic Republic has maintained a nuclear apparatus. And by late 1990s, it was busy establishing an elaborate and clandestine facility in Natanz, approximately 200 miles south of Tehran. Iran was also active in developing plutonium capabilities. The uranium conversion facility in Isfahan and the nearly completed heavy-water production plant in Arak demonstrated the scope of a program that had been effectively concealed from the International Atomic Energy Agency. The Islamic Republic had carefully constructed a nuclear infrastructure that offered it multiple paths to the bomb.
All this came crashing down in 2002, when an opposition group revealed Tehran’s secrets. Ali Khamenei, Khomeini’s successor as supreme leader, immediately understood that he had a serious problem on his hands. The revelations came at a time when America was feeling shock-and-awe confidence in the wake of its rapid displacement of the Taliban in Afghanistan and on the cusp of destruction of the Baathist regime in Iraq in three weeks. The latter campaign shocked an Iranian political establishment that had been confidently told by its military leaders that America could not discharge that task with such ease and speed. The fear in Tehran was that America would next turn its gaze on the Islamic Republic.
So what happened next? President George W. Bush’s inclusion of Iran in his “axis of evil” speech alarmed Iranian leaders. It was time for the clerical state to buy time and wait for the storm to pass. It was at this juncture that Iran cut a deal with the so-called EU-3—Britain, France and Germany—to suspend all aspects of its nuclear program. This suspension would last for two years. By then, America found itself in a sectarian civil war in Iraq that was inflamed by Iran and its proxies. Once America became distracted in Iraq, Iran resumed its enrichment activities. Still, the lesson of 2003 is that threats work in compelling Iran to abandon its nuclear program far more than all the diplomacy that ensued in the coming decade.
Trump and Bolton are the latest American policymakers to unsettle the Islamic Republic. The signs coming out of the White House may at times be ambiguous, but the tough talk and the tough actions have had an impact in Tehran. The U.S. has withdrawn from the flawed Iran nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions on Iran that have knocked off nearly a million barrels from its oil exports and crippled its economy.
And yet the U.S. has faced no retaliatory Iranian response. The Islamic Republic has maintained its compliance with the nuclear agreement and will likely do so during the duration of the Trump presidency. Why? Because it respects and fears the power of the United States when wielded appropriately. The lesson: American determination, forcefully expressed, usually yields Iranian retreat.
The American strategist who seems to have internalized the right lessons in dealing with Iran is John Bolton. He appreciates Iran’s history of creating chaos in the Middle East and the fallacy of an arms control agreement that was paving its way toward the bomb. More important, he seems to appreciate that threats work better than soothing words in tempering a theocratic regime destined for the ash heap of history.