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Back to the future on Iran

The cover of Ruthie Blum's "To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obam, and the 'Arab Spring.'" Credit: Courtesy Ruthie Blum.
The cover of Ruthie Blum's "To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obam, and the 'Arab Spring.'" Credit: Courtesy Ruthie Blum.

The latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) should have raised alarms throughout the West about the progress being made by Iran toward nuclear capability. But the accounts of the doubling of the number of centrifuges refining uranium and their storage in an underground bunker seem to serve mainly as an excuse for more warnings being sent in Israel’s direction as the United States stepped up its pressure to ensure that the Jewish state did not launch an attack against these nuclear facilities on their own.

This has stoked Israelis fears that a cycle of American appeasement and ineffectual diplomacy on Iran as well as about the rise of Islamist parties elsewhere in the Muslim world cannot be stopped. President Barack Obama’s unwillingness to make good on his pledges to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions coupled with a clear indication that Washington is not opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood’s increasing grip on power in Egypt are chilling indications that Washington seems to be oblivious to the perils of such complacent policies.

If all this sounds vaguely familiar, it should. As Israeli author Ruthie Blum points out in her new book, To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama and the “Arab Spring” (RVP Press), Obama’s inability to halt Tehran’s march to nuclear capability or to cope with the fallout from the toppling of authoritarian Arab regimes parallels the willingness of his predecessor to watch passively as Iran sank into Islamist tyranny.

Blum’s narrative returns us to the harrowing days in 1979 and 1980 when Carter watched passively and allowed a longtime U.S. ally to be forced out of power in Iran. Though the Shah was an unpopular tyrant, those Americans who pushed for his ouster in favor of the Ayatollah Khomeini would eventually be forced to recognize that their unrealistic assessments of the Islamist opposition would have dire consequences both for the Iranian people and the United States.

Throughout this period, Carter’s inability to grasp the nature of this conflict was a fatal flaw in his attempts to deal with the situation. The problem was not just that Carter was an ineffectual leader who lacked the will to defend American interests, but that he had no grasp of the nature of America’s enemy or even the ability to understand that the Islamists were enemies.

Though historic parallels are never exact, Blum is not wrong to see a strong similarity between Carter’s cluelessness and the amateurish attempts of the Obama administration to make sense of the Middle East.

Obama’s naïve belief that he could win Arab and Muslim favor for the U.S. through engagement with Iran and public statements like his June 2009 speech in Cairo was just as foolish as any of Carter’s half-baked initiatives. The current tyrannical regime in Iran was just as contemptuous of Obama’s outstretched hand of friendship as was Khomeini of Carter’s outreach. Carter’s slow path to understanding that force must be used to free the hostages—though his attempt to do so was characteristically small-scale and, sadly, spectacularly unsuccessful—may be a grim foreshadowing of the Obama administration’s faith in a dead-end diplomatic track and belatedly and loosely enforced sanctions to avert nuclear disaster in Iran.

Past failures in Iran are also reminiscent of Obama’s inclination to watch passively as the Mubarak regime fell in Egypt during the Arab Spring. As in Iran in 1979 with the Shah, the U.S. got no credit for undermining Mubarak and was unable to influence events as a strategic partner slipped into the hands of an Islamist party. Though it is probably unfair to blame Obama for the collapse of an unsustainable tyranny, Blum is right when she points to what she eloquently describes in her conclusion as the need to “assert American values and the will to live them.”

Blum’s cautionary tale is one that should inform Americans looking to make sense of our current Middle East dilemma. The potential loss of Egypt—which Obama hopes to prevent by continuing aid and debt forgiveness—is a huge problem. But the consequences of inaction and failure on Iran’s nuclear threat are incalculable. Simply put, the world cannot afford the cost of further repetitions of Carter’s blunders by Obama.

JNS Columnist Jonathan S. Tobin is senior online editor of COMMENTARY magazine and chief political blogger at He can be reached via e-mail at: Follow him on Twitter at!/TobinCommentary.

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