In 1979, a coalition of Iranian opposition groups overthrew the Shah. Shia cleric Ayatollah Khomeini’s faction soon eclipsed the others to seize complete control and declare an Islamic Republic.
The Islamic Republic of Iran was an innovation: A fully modern nation-state, blessed with the attributes of statehood and sovereignty, possessing a worldview that many consider pre-modern. The Islamic Republic sees itself as a crusader — or more appropriately, a jihadi — in a global conflict between good and evil.
The armies of the good — which it leads — are committed to remaking the world as they are certain God wishes it to be. Those wishes, of course, are reflected in the Koran, the life of Mohammad, the actions of the first four "righteous" (Rashidun) Caliphs, and the traditions of Shiite Islam. The Islamic Republic may employ nation-state terminology when convenient, but it rejects utterly the division of the world into distinct sovereign entities, each free to pursue its own course. The Iranian regime’s operative belief is that all people and polities must conform to the Shia understanding of God’s will.
In the Iranian cosmology, the armies of evil wear many masks, but at their head is the Great Satan — the U.S. — and its lapdog little Satan — Israel.
For nearly 40 years, the Iranian regime has viewed its conflict with the U.S. as an existential struggle between good and evil. Different factions within the regime have favored different strategies, tactics, and domestic policies. But there has been little dispute about the core theological nature of Iranian anti-Americanism.
Few if any Americans share that worldview, even in inverted terms. The expansionist totalitarian regimes with which we have clashed — Nazism, Communism, and Japanese Imperialism — while no less messianic, grounded their claims and rhetoric in scientific and historic terms. In the 200 plus years between the American and Iranian revolutions, expansionist, totalitarian theologies played no significant role in world affairs.
America’s own thought leaders — in academia, the media, government, and the coastal enclaves — view the mixing of faith and geopolitics as a relic of a past so ancient that taking the Iranian regime at its word would be a sign of contempt, rather than of respect.
In the unguardedly simple and apparently unembarrassed words of The New York Times’ Pulitzer prize winning Executive Editor about the paper of record, "We don't get religion. We don't get the role of religion in people's lives."
Although they may mouth empty religious pieties on the campaign trail when advised to do so, America’s leaders have become so alienated from the notion of faith as an actual lodestar that most of them dismiss it out of hand. The idea that a person — much less a regime — might base actions, allocate resources, govern behavior, and direct policies on the certainty of God’s will is so unimaginable, so far beyond the grasp of Western elites, that it is considered impolite or buffoonish to suggest even its potential relevance to world affairs or public policy.
As a result, every U.S. administration from Carter’s to Bush’s ignored or denied the nature of the Iranian regime. Every one of them, at some point, held out hope that the Islamic Republic was on the verge of normalizing or moderating. Through most of those administrations, the costs of refusing to see Iran as it is proved manageable.
A few hostages here, a terrorist attack there, an incident in the Gulf, the takeover of southern Lebanon, saber rattling within international organizations, tension with U.S. allies — expensive, but hardly debilitating to a superpower like the U.S. It was easy enough for America’s leaders to call for regime change without doing much to bring it about.
By the time President Barack Obama took office, that strategy was wearing thin. The world knew that the mullahs were advancing towards a nuclear arsenal, and the upheaval in Iraq created new opportunities for Iranian mischief far closer to American interests. The costs of refusing to see the Iranian regime for what it is were verging on the unacceptable.
Few American factions, however, were less able to grasp the notion of an Islamic theocracy than those governing Obama administration foreign policy. When circumstances handed Obama two significant opportunities to push for regime change — Iran’s internal Green Movement following the stolen election of 2009, and the collapse of Iran’s most important ally in Syria — the administration refused to move.
Instead, Obama led his team to a curious combination of denial and Realpolitik: He insisted that the Islamic Republic was a normal adversarial state, and pushed for negotiations on that basis.
The basis of those negotiations were clear. Obama was eager to reduce the American footprint in the Mideast, but unwilling to do it in any way that might make him or his administration look bad. In diplomatic language, Obama was looking to negotiate the terms of an American surrender to Iran. Perhaps the one saving grace of Obama’s face-saving surrender to a totalitarian theocracy was the clarity with which he bound only his administration through executive order, rather than attempting to bind the country by treaty.
Iran should have been overjoyed at the surrender of its much stronger adversary. As a theocracy, however, Iran believed that any concessions to the U.S. represented a literal deal with the devil. Honest entry into such a deal is a dangerous affront to their faith. Feeling bound to its terms turns the righteous evil. The Islamic Republic thus pocketed Obama’s concessions — along with palettes of cash — while altering none of the behavior it considers central to jihad.
President Trump recognizes Obama’s Iran deal as a multi-layered farce. For the first time, the United States has a President willing to see the Islamic Republic as it sees itself; to accord it the respect — and the hostility — a deeply committed adversary deserves. The Iran strategy that President Trump outlined last week is the first ever American attempt to address the reality of Iran. It is long overdue. And it is yet one more testament to President Trump’s willingness to see the world as it is rather than as the insiders running the world’s capitals would like it to be.
Bruce Abramson is the President of Informationism, Inc., Vice President and Director of Policy at the Iron Dome Alliance, and a Senior Fellow at the London Center for Policy Research. Jeff Ballabon is CEO of B2 Strategic, Chairman of the Iron Dome Alliance, and a Senior Fellow at the American Conservative Union's Center for Statesmanship and Diplomacy. To read more of their reports — Click Here Now.
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