The Islamic Republic of Iran is, according to no less an authority than the U.S. government, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. Its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, suicide-bombed U.S. Marines in Beirut in 1983. Iranian-backed Shia militias killed hundreds of American troops in Iraq more recently. Just months after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran’s rulers began taking American hostages. They continue to do so.
The clerical regime represents a significant national security threat to the United States, and an existential threat to the Middle East’s Sunni nations and its one Jewish state. It seeks what, in an earlier age, we’d have called an empire.
So last week, when Barack Obama visited MacDill Air Force Base in Florida to give his final presidential address on national security, what did he have to say about Iran, its continuing use of terrorism, its supreme leader’s animosity toward the United States and its hegemonic ambitions?
“Just think about what we’ve done these last eight years without firing a shot,” he boasted. “We’ve rolled back Iran’s nuclear program.” That was it — his one and only reference to Iran. And it was misleading. Iran’s rulers have frozen or slowed some components of their nuclear program — and let’s be clear, we’re talking about a nuclear weapons program. But other components, for example, ballistic-missile development and advanced research on centrifuges, have continued apace.
Nor is it true, as Mr. Obama implied, that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — the unsigned, nonbinding agreement that Mr. Obama concluded with Tehran despite both congressional and public disapproval — prevents Iran’s ayatollahs from becoming nuclear-armed. On the contrary, it provides them with a path toward that goal even if, over the years ahead, they retain their commitment to what they call a jihad against the West.
About two years ago, Michael Doran, a former National Security Council senior director, currently a scholar at the Hudson Institute, produced an extensively researched 9,000-word report, published in the online journal, Mosaic, in which he established that achieving rapprochement with Iran has been Mr. Obama’s “urgent priority” since his earliest days in the White House. However, he “consistently wrapped his approach to that priority in exceptional layers of secrecy,” convinced that neither Congress nor the American public would support him.
His motivation remains elusive. Perhaps he believed that Iran’s rulers harbor legitimate grievances that, if addressed, would lead them to moderate their policies. Perhaps he has seen himself as a Kissingerian builder of what Mr. Doran calls a “grand vision of a new Middle East order,” an architecture that would balance the powers of the region’s Shias/Persians, Sunnis/Arabs and Israelis/Jews. Or, more alarmingly, perhaps he is incapable of distinguishing between friends and enemies.
Such confusion would not be unprecedented, as Mr. Doran makes clear in a new book, “Ike’s Gamble.” In it, he reveals how President Dwight D. Eisenhower miscomprehended pan-Arabism, which one might regard as the precursor of pan-Islamism. That led to the development of a Middle East strategy he would come to regret.
The story begins in 1953, when Eisenhower first entered the White House. Great Britain had 80,000 troops stationed along the Suez Canal. Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had taken power in a coup a year earlier, was demanding their departure.
“Eisenhower believed that America’s task was to be an honest broker between the British and the new Arab nationalists seeking redress from their former overlords,” Mr. Doran writes. “In no way idiosyncratic, Ike’s view of the American role in the region was by far the dominant perspective in Washington — a perspective reinforced by the foreign-policy elite’s stance toward Israel, which at best could be described as arm’s-length when not positively adverse.”
Eisenhower saw Nasser as an anti-imperialist who, if given American support, would help bring other Arabs into a strategic partnership against the Soviet Union. With this in mind, Eisenhower sided with Nasser, who nationalized the Suez Canal, and against the British, the French and the Israelis who sought through force to regain Western control of that strategic asset.
He even had the CIA equip Nasser with a powerful broadcasting system. “Voice of the Arabs” was soon beaming “Nasser’s radical pan-Arab ideology, in all of its anti-Western and anti-Zionist glory, into every Arab household in the Middle East. In the end, gravitating not toward Washington but toward Moscow, Nasser would work assiduously to undermine the Western position in the Middle East.”
It eventually became obvious that Nasser’s interest was power and hegemony over other Arab states (e.g. Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon), rather than self-determination and freedom. Peaceful coexistence with Israel was out of the question. He would take what he could get from the United States but he would never join an American-led “international community.”
The parallels between how the Eisenhower administration viewed Egypt then and how the Obama administration views Iran now are striking. Today, Mr. Doran writes, “Transnational Islamist movements are shaking the region in a manner similar to Nasser’s pan-Arabism.”
In time, however, Eisenhower recognized that he had been wrong to believe that “helping the Arabs balance the power of the Israelis and the Europeans was the key to a successful regional strategy.” And, in later life, “he expressed regret for having treated his allies so harshly at Suez, and even came to see Israel as a strategic asset.”
For now, at least, Mr. Obama continues to turns a blind eye to evidence that “Death to America!” remains the long-term goal of the Iranian revolution. He rejects the possibility that Iran’s “moderates” are actually strategic pragmatists, eager to accept American money but, in exchange, willing to do nothing more than exercise a bit of patience when it comes to achieving their Islamist and imperial ambitions.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.