Iran Plot Goes Straight to the Top - Commentary

In this Wall Street Journal oped, Reuel Gerecht blows out of the water the usual excuse offered for Iranian misconduct: We can’t be sure that senior leaders actually approved the thwarted operation to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington. After all there is no smoking gun—no intercepted recording of Qods Force leader Qasim Soleimani telling Supreme Leader Ali Khameini, “OK, boss, we’re gonna’ waste that Saudi so-and-so on the Great Satan’s home turf.”  The same excuses were always offered for the misconduct of the Soviet Union: Surely Stalin, or Khrushchev, or Brezhnev, did not know what was being done in his name! It’s actually the old trope of blaming the king’s advisers, not the king, as a way of excusing top-level transgressions. But it’s not terribly persuasive. As Gerecht writes:

Lord help Qasim Soleimani—the man who likely has control over the Revolutionary Guards’ elite dark-arts Qods Force, which apparently orchestrated this assassination scheme—if he didn’t clear the operation with Khamenei. He will lose his job and perhaps his life. For 20 years, Khamenei has been constructing a political system that is now more submissive to him than revolutionary Iran was to Khomeini.

So let’s get over this juvenile tendency to make excuses for Iran and face the facts squarely: the Iranian regime is guilty of what could be construed as an act of war against the United States. Not that there’s anything unusual about that: Revolutionary Iran has been waging war on us since the seizure of our embassy hostages in 1979. Its campaign against us continued with the hostage-taking in Lebanon—not to mention the destruction of the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut. Then there was the 1996 Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia. More recently, Iranian proxies have been responsible for the deaths of numerous U.S. service personnel in Iraq and probably a lesser number in Afghanistan.

This has been a rather one-sided war, insofar as the Iranians were fighting us, but we did little to fight back. This is not a partisan issue—Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush did more to respond to Iranian transgressions than did Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, but they still did far too little. It is striking the only times the Iranian regime has backed down was when it faced actual American military might. In 1988, President Reagan ordered the use of naval force to prevent the Iranians from closing the Strait of Hormuz; a side effect was the inadvertent shoot down of an Iranian passenger airliner by the USS Vincennes. This was entirely an accident, but the conspiratorial Iranians assumed it was a deliberate, cold-blooded act—and this led them to conclude their war with Iraq, because they thought they could not win against both the U.S. and Iraq. More recently, Iran was said to have halted its nuclear program after the fast fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003, which left Iran surrounded by American troops. The program was restarted after we bogged down in Iraq, making our military seem much less formidable. But President Bush did subsequently (and belatedly) approve measures to identify and arrest Qods Forces operatives within Iraq. This had a salutary impact in leading the Iranians to back down, at least temporarily, from attacks on our forces.

Yet time and again we have failed to grasp the lesson that Iran responds positively to displays of American strength and is emboldened to aggression by evidence of American weakness—whether it was Reagan’s arms-for-hostages deal or Obama’s initial outreach to the clerical regime. If we haven’t been willing to go to war with Iran over attacks on our troops and diplomats—or over its nuclear weapons program, which threatens to destabilize the entire region—there is little chance we will go to war over a plot to kill a Saudi diplomat on our soil. Presumably we will slap some more targeted sanctions on the regime and hope for the best. That, in turn, is likely to convince the Iranians we really are a paper tiger and will not go to war even if they are on the verge of going nuclear. If Iran really does go nuclear, look out: all bets will be off. If Tehran acts so recklessly and provocatively now, without nuclear weapons, imagine how it will act with nukes.

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