It’s been 40 years since I’ve been to Iran. I’d love to return. At present, that seems inadvisable.
I went there as a reporter, in the early months of 1979, a time of revolution, a time when many Iranians, perhaps most, hoped they might soon be freer than they had been under the shah and more prosperous, too.
My media colleagues regarded Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the revolution, as an avatar of authentic Third World spirituality and social justice. The U.S. ambassador in Tehran, William Sullivan, compared him to Mahatma Gandhi.
I left Iran before summer, and by fall it was clear that Iran’s new rulers were achieving little — unless forcing women to cover up can be considered an achievement. In an attempt to re-ignite revolutionary fervor, militant young followers of Ayatollah Khomeini seized the American embassy and took American diplomats hostage.
Though a more blatant violation of international law is hard to imagine, an effective response was not forthcoming. Ayatollah Khomeini famously concluded: “America cannot do a damn thing against us.”
Confident of that assessment, the Islamic Republic went on to become the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism, eventually providing “nearly a billion dollars a year” to favored asymmetric combatants, according to the State Department. The regime has been behind terrorist attacks and assassination plots in the Middle East, Europe, Latin America and the United States.
At the same time, it’s been building an empire. Hezbollah, essentially its foreign legion, has become the dominant military and political force in Lebanon, even as it works hand-in-glove with international drug cartels.
Shia militias, funded and instructed by Tehran, are now ensconced in Iraq and engaged in Syria, where more than a half million Arabs have been killed and millions more left homeless. The clerical regime backs the Houthi rebels in Yemen as well.
Having grown accustomed to America — and, it goes without saying, the “international community” and the U.N. — doing not a damn thing, Iran’s rulers were upset and angered when President Trump withdrew from a deal that was giving them billions of dollars in exchange for a vague promise to delay the nuclear weapons program they deny exists.
Mr. Trump imposed economic sanctions which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said would be removed only when Iran’s rulers met a list of demands, among them the release of all American hostages, withdrawal of forces under Tehran’s command from Syria, and ending support for the Taliban and the harboring of al Qaeda leaders. Which of these strikes you as unreasonable?
U.S. sanctions have inflicted serious economic pain on a regime that has been unwilling to scale back its international adventures to stem the declining living standard of average Iranians at home.
A few days ago, Iran’s rulers lashed out not just at the U.S. government but also at an American think tank — namely the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), which I founded shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and where I continue to serve as president.
They pronounced the FDD guilty of “fabricating and spreading lies, encouraging, providing consultations, lobbying, and launching a smear campaign,” and supporting “economic terrorism,” a term they use for sanctions.
They singled out Mark Dubowitz, FDD’s chief executive officer, and a recognized expert on sanctions policies who has provided research, analysis and advice to the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations.
The regime declared that the FDD would be sanctioned. Had they left the matter there, we would have inferred it was merely sending a message. But it went further, ominously threatening to utilize its “security apparatuses” to “punish” us.
Note the irony: The FDD has long considered sanctions — with exemptions for food, medicine and other humanitarian needs — a means by which the U.S. government can attempt to constrain and contain outlaw regimes without resorting to military force.
In response, Tehran is threatening to use paramilitary force to silence the FDD and, by implication, any other Americans who dare express the conviction that addressing serious criminal activities requires more than strongly worded letters.
Speaking of letters, 70 think-tank scholars on the right and on the left, including several former Obama administration officials, have signed one supporting the FDD. “We are all accustomed to disagreement, and indeed often differ on questions relating to the Islamic Republic of Iran and U.S. policy,” it states. “On this matter, however, we stand together in condemning attempts to intimidate a non-governmental organization and its staff.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Adviser John Bolton and Ambassador Nikki Haley also are among those who have spoken out. Mr. Pompeo said in a tweet: “The U.S. does not take these threats lightly, and will hold the regime and its ‘apparatuses’ to account.” Mr. Bolton added: “Iran will be held accountable for any action taken to harm FDD or that of any American.”
Back in 1979, Iran was a troubled land, but one of enduring beauty and culture, with unusually hospitable people, and rather good food (though, much to my dismay, adult beverages were banned while I was in-country).
Today, Iran is a sorely oppressed nation, ruled by wealthy theocrats determined to make free peoples submit to them. Just last week President Hassan Rouhani, often characterized as a “moderate,” gave a speech that was translated by MEMRI. He demanded that President Trump “lift all the sanctions and bow down before the Iranian people.”
Someday, inshallah, these men and their asphyxiating revolution will become a terrible but fading memory. Their threats notwithstanding, I hope to live long enough to return to Iran when those better days arrive.
• Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for The Washington Times.