The 1979 Islamist takeover of Iran occurred at a time of uncertainty and self-doubt for the United States. Americans were still reeling from the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. As a result, Washington was no longer willing to support an unpopular dictator, the Shah of Iran, in the face of what looked like a popular revolution—especially because the CIA had already saved him once in 1953.
Although the Cold War was still in full swing, the U.S. had lost the will to protect its vital interests in the Middle East resolutely. Indeed, when Islamists were about to take over Iran, pundits in Washington thought that replacing the Shah with an ayatollah was not such a bad idea, so long as the Islamic regime exercised strategic continuity and kept the Soviet Union out of Iran and the Persian Gulf.
The pundits grossly underestimated the Islamists’ own potential for causing havoc, which was on par with the communists. As soon as it took over Iran, the Islamic regime unleashed chaos in the Middle East. It sought to export its bloody revolution, took American diplomats hostage, pushed Iran towards war by provoking Iraq’s Shiite community in hopes of toppling Saddam Hussein and exacerbated the Lebanese civil war by creating Hezbollah. These were only the most conspicuous acts of violence the regime committed in its earliest days.
The collapse of the communist bloc in the early 1990s and the ouster of the Ba’ath regime in Iraq in the early 2000s opened up vast opportunities for Tehran’s imperial project. The Iranian regime embarked on a serious quest for nuclear power, expanded its proxy forces across the region and began to encroach upon the autonomy and national sovereignty of the Arab states by installing pro-Tehran Islamist “militia governments” in those states.
Under various administrations, both Democratic and Republican, the U.S. has adopted varying policies to mitigate Tehran’s malevolence. These policies have included both appeasement and punishment. President Barack Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal with Iran is an example of the former. President Donald Trump’s assassination of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) chief Qassem Soleimani’s assassination is an example of the latter. But as Tehran’s malice only grows, this ambivalent policy approach is increasingly untenable.
Islamists are inherently apocalyptic, interventionist and expansionist. They consider the total defeat of the West and its allies in the Middle East essential to their ultimate goal of establishing an “Islamic world government.” Thus, they do whatever they can to erode the liberal order. This includes infiltrating Latin America to undermine U.S. security, helping Russia batter Ukraine, feeding underpriced contraband oil to China and North Korea, and ordering the Houthis to disrupt global shipping in the Red Sea. Moreover, the Islamic regime is inches away from a nuclear bomb and holds the threat of a nuclear holocaust over the heads of its foes in the region and beyond.
Pursuing Obama’s policy of appeasement, the Biden administration did too little too late to head off Iran’s escalation of its conflict with the U.S. and its allies, including Israel. Hamas’s heinous Oct. 7 attack on Israel came about first and foremost because Islamists sensed a slackening of American deterrence in the region. They followed up the Oct. 7 massacre with nearly 200 attacks on American bases and troops in the region, finally killing three U.S. military personnel and wounding many more. The U.S. launched retaliatory strikes, but their effectiveness is not yet clear.
Neutralizing Iran’s proxy forces and their military capabilities is necessary but insufficient. Tehran can easily replace them because the life of a proxy is cheap and cash is always flowing. Over the years, the U.S. and Israel have repeatedly struck Iranian assets across the region, with little impact on the larger problem. Tehran and its proxies can lie low under fire, but as soon as the coast is clear, they reappear and return to causing havoc.
U.S. policy on Iran requires a paradigm shift. Washington must reexamine its longstanding assumptions about the Iranian regime and fundamentally change them. It must understand that concessions will not placate Islamists. Concessions will only embolden them to create more chaos.
This chaos is no longer confined to the Middle East. Western nations are increasingly overrun by Islamists’ active interference in domestic affairs. Not to be overlooked is the role played by pro-Tehran lobbying groups and undercover influence operations by agents in the West, which are eroding Western security and democracy from within.
One effective policy would be to hit high-profile Islamists inside Iran, a legitimate retaliatory measure when Tehran dares to draw American blood. The U.S. must target regime leaders, senior officials and IRGC generals. Other legitimate targets include military, paramilitary and logistical facilities, as well as industrial and commercial infrastructure belonging to regime leaders and the IRGC. These individuals and assets are either irreplaceable or will take considerable time and effort to replace. In addition, such retaliation will demonstrate to Tehran that Washington is quite serious about protecting its soldiers and security interests.
Most importantly, forcing the Iranian regime to pay the price for its crimes will shatter the regime’s aura of invincibility in the eyes of the desperate Iranian people and give them the encouragement they need to rise up against the tyrants in Tehran and get rid of them once and for all. This should be Washington’s ultimate goal: To facilitate the fall of the Islamist regime and the establishment of a liberal democracy in Iran. Only then will Iran become a respectable member of the world community, rather than one of its worst criminals.