Almost thirty years ago, President Jimmy Carter tried to show what a nice guy he was by pressing the Shah not to crush the revolutionaries. After the monarch fell, National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski met top officials of the new Islamist regime to pledge U.S. friendship to the government controlled by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. At the time, I wrote that by approaching some of the milder radicals, the administration frightened the more militant ones. U.S.-Iran relations must be smashed, they concluded, lest Washington back their rivals. In fact, as we'll see in a moment, the Carter administration offered to back Khomeini himself.
Three days after the Brzezinski meeting, in November 1979, the Islamist regime's cadre seized the U.S. embassy and its staff as hostages, holding them until January 1981. This was our introduction to the new Middle East of radical Islamism. Carter continued his weak stance, persuading the Tehran regime that it could get away with anything.
So we've long known that undermining U.S. allies, passivity toward anti-American radicals, and inaction after a massive terrorist act against Americans didn't work. The hostages were only released because Iran was suffering desperately from an Iraqi invasion and feared Carter's successor, Ronald Reagan, as someone likely to be tougher.
The lesson of being strong in defending interests and combating enemies has not quite been learned. Today, the opposite is the mainstream prescription for success and the United States may be about to elect a president whose world view parallels the way Carter worked.
Here's where Gates comes in. On September 29, while giving a lecture at the National Defense University in Washington DC, someone asked him how the next president might improve relations with Iran. Gates responded:
"I have been involved in the search for the elusive Iranian moderate for 30 years." Then Gates revealed what was actually said at Brzezinski's meeting, in which he participated, summarizing Brzezinski's position as follows:
"We will accept your revolution....We will recognize your government. We will sell you all the weapons that we had contracted to sell the Shah....We can work together in the future."
The Iranians demanded the United States turn over to them the fugitive Shah, who they would have executed. Brzezinski refused. Three days later Iran seized the embassy and forever changed the Middle East. The road thus paved led to the Iran-Iraq and Iraq-Kuwait wars, the power of Hamas and Hizballah, September 11, 2001, and a great deal more. Many thousands would die due to American timidity and Iranian aggressiveness.
Had the United States been a mean bully in its treatment of the new Islamist Iran? The On the contrary, Washington did everything possible to negotiate, conciliate, and build confidence. We'll do almost anything you want, Carter and Brzezinski offered, just be our friend. Far from being appeased Iran demanded such a total humiliation--turning over the fatally ill, deposed Shah for execution--even that administration couldn't accept it.
Far from persuading Khomeini that the United States was a real threat, the U.S. government made itself appear a pitiful, helpless giant, convincing Tehran--as Khomeini put it--America couldn't do a damn thing. His revolution and ideology was too strong for it.
So why should we expect such a tactic could work today? How long does it take to get the message: this is an ideological revolution with huge ambitions to which America is inevitably a barrier. Appeasement, talks, apologies, confidence-building measures won't convince Tehran that America is its friend, only that it's an enemy so weak as to make aggression seem inevitably successful.
The only U.S. precondition has been that to get a high-level dialogue, Iran must first stop its drive for nuclear weapons, at least temporarily.
Gates understands what happened:
"Every administration since then has reached out to the Iranians in one way or another and all have failed....The reality is the Iranian leadership has been consistently unyielding over a very long period of time in response to repeated overtures from the United States about having a different and better kind of relationship."
This situation is quite parallel to efforts to have reasonable preconditions with the Palestinians--stop terrorism, incitement, clearly accept a two-state solution--or with Syria--stop sponsoring terrorism, cease trying to take over Lebanon, and accept normal relations with Israel as the outcome of peace. Similar bargains have been offered Hamas and Hizballah. Yet even this is too much for the other side and too much for those who continue trying to undermine any Western leverage on radical forces.
If the other side won't give anything, they insist, merely offer more. And if the other side takes those concessions, pockets them, gives nothing in return, and continues their behavior, this merely proves you have to give still more.
Here's more evidence why that's wrong. Former U.S. Marine Colonel Timothy Geraghty was Marine commander in October 1983 when suicide bombers attacked the barracks of U.S. peacekeeping forces in Beirut, killing 242 Americans. He now reveals that a September 26, 1983 U.S. intelligence intercept showed Iran's government ordering the attack through its embassy in Lebanon. The timid response to that operation set a pattern leading directly to the September 11 attack.
Three decades after the miserable failure of the make-friends-with-Islamist-Iran policy--including offering Khomeini continued U.S. arms' supplies for goodness sake!--isn't it time to learn this simple lesson?
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).