In Tehran last week, the 35th anniversary of Iran’s revolution was celebrated with chants of “Death to America” and the burning of American flags. Also on display were posters showing Iranian boots stomping on President Obama’s face.
Separate from the festivities, Iranian military commanders have been testing a “new long-range ballistic missile that can carry multiple warheads,” and threatening to send warships steaming toward America’s coastal waters. State television has aired simulated footage of Iran’s military attacking an American aircraft carrier and bombing Israeli cities.
Nevertheless, the Obama administration and most of the media have their story, and they’re sticking to it: Iranian “moderates,” they contend, are braving opposition from “hard-liners” in order to pursue a “diplomatic solution” that can lead to a historic “rapprochement.”
My skepticism has deep roots. Thirty-five years ago, “Bill Moyers Journal: International Report,” a program on PBS, sent me to Iran to cover the triumphant return of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini from exile in Iraq and France.
To say that Iranians greeted him as a hero would be gross understatement. One example: The young, educated, sophisticated Iranian producer with whom I was assigned to work compared Khomeini to Moses, Jesus and Muhammad.
Most of my fellow journalists wrote about the “Iranian Revolution.” The ayatollah attempted to correct them: This was an “Islamic Revolution.” The fact that it was beginning in Iran was not the point.
As Khomeini’s chartered flight from Paris neared Tehran, ABC News’ Peter Jennings asked: “Ayatollah, would you be so kind as to tell us how you feel about being back in Iran?” Khomeini replied: “Nothing. I don’t feel a thing.”
To Khomeini — as to all Islamists — “patriotism is paganism.” Allah and Islam deserve loyalty — not some geographical or cultural construct.
In his writings, Khomeini made clear that he intended his Marxist-influenced Islamic Revolution to spread. He wanted to inspire the oppressed masses — the mostazafin — to rise up against the “imperialists,” the “arrogant” disbelievers (above all, America, “the Great Satan”) and to wage a jihad that, sooner or later, would restore Islam to its former power and glory.
A nuclear capability leading to Iranian dominance of the oil-rich Persian Gulf and the broader Middle East would be steps along that path.
Journalists and academic analysts grappled with such ideas reluctantly, if at all. Time magazine praised the revolution’s “democratic aims.”
In a piece for The New York Times headlined “Trusting Khomeini,” Princeton professor Richard Falk wrote that the depiction (by conservatives) of Khomeini as “fanatical, reactionary and the bearer of crude prejudices seems certainly and happily false.”
Mr. Falk looked forward to Iran providing “a desperately needed model of humane governance for a third-world country.”
Instead, of course, for nearly two generations, Iran has been among the world’s most corrupt and cruel regimes — the leading state sponsor of terrorism abroad and barbarically oppressive at home.
Since the inauguration of the “moderate” Hassan Rouhani as president last August, the Iranian state has actually been executing its citizens at a faster rate — roughly 66 people each month, an average of 19 more per month than during the two years before Mr. Rouhani took office.
One example was the poet Hashem Shaabani. Charged with moharebeh, “waging war on God,” he was imprisoned and tortured for three years. On Jan. 27, he was hanged.
By the way, Mr. Falk’s spectacular misreading of the historic events of 1979 damaged his career not at all. He is today professor emeritus at Princeton University and the United Nations’ “special rapporteur” on the Palestinian territories.
Back to the revolution: In November 1979, Khomeini established a system of government known as velayat-e faqih, which implies rule by unelected clerics. He took the title “supreme leader,” making clear that his powers could not be checked — much less challenged.
About the same time, a group calling itself “Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line” — imam was another religious title used for Khomeini — seized the American Embassy in Tehran, taking the American diplomats hostage. This was, unambiguously, an act of war. The Carter administration responded fecklessly, leading Khomeini to conclude: “America can’t do a damn thing.”
Over the years that followed, Khomeini — and, after his death in 1989, his successor, supreme leader Ali Khamenei — would test that proposition with terrorist attacks from Beirut to Argentina to Germany to Saudi Arabia to Iraq to Afghanistan.
Some Iranian plots failed; for example, the bombing of John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City in 2007, and an attempt to assassinate the Saudi ambassador by blowing up a restaurant in Washington, D.C., in 2011. The one constant: Iran’s rulers have never been held accountable for their crimes.
This brings us to the present: As negotiations with Iran resume this week, President Obama and his envoys continue to think that Mr. Rouhani, with Ayatollah Khameini’s blessing, is not just willing but eager to conclude a comprehensive agreement that would end sanctions in exchange for the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
An alternative theory: Ayatollah Khamenei and Mr. Rouhani are loyal sons of the Islamic revolution, committed to the imam’s ideology, to the goals he set 35 years ago.
They are “giving diplomacy a chance” — confident they can defeat the West at the bargaining table. They are betting that America’s current leaders, like those 35 years ago, “can’t do a damn thing.”
Based on the evidence available, that doesn’t seem a bad wager.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.