Ten days before the toppling of the Shah of Iran, President Jimmy Carter told a conference of world leaders on the Island of Guadeloupe that a Khomeini-led Iran “would not export revolution … and would be interested in buying tractors, not tanks.” On Jan. 11, six days before the toppling of the Shah, “the CIA assessed that Khomeini would sit back and let his moderate, Western-educated followers run the government.”
On the eve of the toppling of the Shah, U.S. Ambassador to Iran, William Sullivan, argued that Khomeini and the armed forces were anti-Communist, that “Khomeini would play a Gandhi-like role and that elections would be likely to produce a pro-Western Islamic republic.”
Five months before the toppling of the Shah, an August 1978 CIA study concluded that “Iran is not in a revolutionary or even a pre-revolutionary situation.”
According to Winston Churchill, “all men make mistakes, but only wise men learn from their mistakes.” Making mistakes can be a productive experience—if one avoids repeating them.
Have U.S. policy-makers learned from past mistakes?
The mistaken pre-1978-79 policy on the Islamic Revolution dealt a devastating blow to Middle East stability, generated a robust tailwind for Islamic terrorism and severely undermined U.S. national and homeland security.
As a result of this dramatically flawed policy, Persia was transformed from “Iran” to “The Islamic Republic of Iran,” and from “the American policeman of the Gulf” to a global epicenter of anti-Americanism, stretching its rogue presence from Central Asia, through the Middle East and Africa to Latin America, all the way to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Notwithstanding the mega-billion dollar bonanza of the 2015 nuclear accord, Iran’s ayatollahs have persisted in perceiving the United States as “The Great Satan” and the main barrier on the path to their overarching goal: the subordination of Western culture and the entire globe to Islamic Shi’ite dominance.
Dramatic U.S. policy mistakes of 1978-79
On Nov. 9, 1978, U.S. Ambassador Sullivan sent his “Thinking the Unthinkable” cable, contending that U.S. interests could be protected in a post-Shah Islamic government. Opposition leaders such as Mehdi Bazargan would lead a new government, that would depend on the U.S.-oriented Iranian military. Khomeini would return to Iran in triumph and hold a Gandhi-like position in the political constellation. Iran could still be counted on by the United States to fulfill its role as defender of the northern tier.
The late British professor Eli Kedourie, who was a game-changing Middle East historian, exposed fundamental fumbles in U.S. policy on Iran: “U.S. Ambassador Sullivan argued that Khomeini and the armed forces were anti-Communist…. that elections would produce a pro-Western Islamic republic. … In Washington, there was a chorus of academic and official voices singing the praises of Khomeini.
“Princeton University’s Richard Falk … [claimed that] Khomeini’s entourage were committed to a struggle against all forms of oppression … and strong belief in minority rights. … Khomeini’s Islamic Republic could be expected to have a doctrine of social justice at its core … flexible at interpreting the Koran. … The Islamic republic will be a stabilizing element geopolitically.”
America conned by the ayatollahs’ ‘taqiyyah’
The BBC Persian Service documented Ayatollah Khomeini’s skillful use of Islamic taqiyyah—embraced by Khomeini’s successors—intended to mislead rivals/enemies by concealing one’s belief and intentions through dissimulation.
Khomeini showered the United States with empty promises, which satisfied the worldview of U.S. policy-makers, who were eager for Iran to be pacified and embrace Western values and institutions, such as peaceful coexistence, human rights and democracy.
Khomeini convinced the U.S. national security and foreign policy establishment that they could do business with the Islamic Republic, as expressed by a CIA document dated Jan. 11, 1979.
According to the document, Khomeini was expected to let his moderate, Western-educated followers and his second-in-command, the pragmatic, university-educated, English and German-speaking Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, run the government.
Moreover, on Jan. 27, 1979—five days before Khomeini’s landing in Tehran—he sent a message to President Carter, suggesting that if the United States were to secure Iran’s military acceptance of Khomeini’s takeover, then he would calm the country, restore stability and protect U.S. interests and U.S. citizens in Iran.
Khomeini stated that he was not opposed to U.S. interests in Iran and that the United States would not lose an ally, because he, too, would be a friend of the United States. He preferred dealing with Washington, rather than the atheistic, anti-religion Soviets. American presence was necessary to counter Soviet and British influence. The Islamic Republic would be humanitarian, advancing the cause of peace and tranquility for all mankind. He pledged not to destroy the pro-U.S. military and urged the United States not to pull its sophisticated weapon systems out of Iran.
However, on Feb. 15, two weeks following Khomeini’s landing in Tehran, four senior military generals were executed on the rooftop of a high school. And that was just the beginning of countless executions.
Downplaying the role of Islam in shaping the vision, culture and policy of the Islamic Republic, U.S. policy-makers were preoccupied with Khomeini’s lack of affinity for the Soviets.
In January 1980, celebrating the first anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, Khomeini held 63 U.S. hostages, including the U.S. charge d’affaires, declaring: “America can’t do a damn thing; Iran is going to fight American imperialism worldwide; and we will export the Islamic Revolution to the entire world.” Instead of the soothing messages to President Carter, Iran’s ayatollahs have promoted the message of “The Great American Satan.”
According to Tony Blair Institute for Global Change’s Kasra Arabi, a specialist on Iran and Shi’ite Islam, the fundamentals of Iran’s Islamic Revolution are as valid today as they were in 1979:
“Western foreign policy towards Iran has consistently overlooked the power of the ideology born in the Islamic Revolution. The totalitarian worldview promotes repressive governance on religious grounds and hostility to the West. It has been a driving force of instability and violence for decades. It has claimed lives not only in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, but also as far as Bulgaria, Argentina and Thailand … .”
Furthermore, this ideology has been growing stronger, not weaker, writes Arabi.
“Antipathy towards the U.S. has become a greater focal point for the regime under Iran’s incumbent Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, than it was under Khomeini. … A pledge to exporting the 1979 Revolution is enshrined in Iran’s Constitution … .”
Nor did anything change when Iran signed the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement, he continues.
“[The Ayatollahs] believe in a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West, with the view that Islam is incompatible with Western values. … [According to Iran’s] anti-Americanism, the US is the chief representative of the oppressors, the Great Satan, Islam’s ultimate enemy and the master of injustice that has subjugated the Muslim World….”
In fact, since the JCPOA was signed, Tehran has become more, not less involved in the region, states Arabi.
“The depiction of a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West, the belief that Islamic governance is the solution to the Muslim world’s problems, and the aim of establishing a universal Islamic order based on the Sharia’ law are espoused by both Shia and Sunni Islamists …
“Forty years following the Revolution, Iranian leaders still act on these ideas. Tehran has worked tirelessly to export its Shia’ Islamist ideology, regionally and globally. Iran and its proxies are driving violence and instability across the Middle East and beyond …
“Coexistence between dar al-Islam [the abode of Islam] and dar al-Harb [abode of the “disbelievers,” literally: “abode of the sword”] is impossible. Dar al-Islam is in a permanent state of war, or Jihad, with dar al-Harb. Peace between Muslims and non-Muslims is unattainable [while temporary ceasefires are possible]. … Iran actively encourages all Muslims to rise against their corrupt, pro-Western regimes, particularly aiming at Saudi leaders, to whom Khomeini referred as illegitimate disbelievers, who had usurped the holy mosque of Mecca … .”
The bottom line
Is the systematic track record of Iran’s ayatollahs consistent with the assumption that they are amenable to good-faith negotiation, peaceful coexistence and departure from their 1,400-year-old fanatic, imperialistic vision?
Does the United States recognize the well-documented ruthless reality of the ayatollahs, from 1979-2022—including Iran’s Constitution, school curriculum, mosque sermons, mass public events, regional and global subversion and terrorism, which has exposed the futility and the self-destructive practice of waiving the military and regime-change options?
Will the architects of 2022 U.S. foreign and national security policy avoid or repeat the egregious errors of their predecessors from 1978-79? Are U.S. policy-makers still susceptible to the masterful practice of taqiyya by Iran’s ayatollahs, sacrificing the harsh and frustrating reality on the altar of convenient wishful thinking?
Is the United States still trapped in a policy that underestimates the critical role played by Islam in shaping Middle East culture and geostrategic relations; a policy that has fueled the “Islamic Revolution,” posing a critical threat to regional and global stability, including U.S. national and homeland security and economy?
Fool me once, shame on you; fool me (at least) twice, shame on me?
Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of Second Thought: A U.S.-Israel Initiative.
This article was first published by The Ettinger Report.