40 years after launching hostage crisis, Iran less trustworthy than ever

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By Jonathan S. Tobin
Source: New York Post
Anti-US protesters
Anti-US protesters celebrating anniversary of the takeover of the United States embassy in Iran.EPA

For Americans old enough to remember it, the images from the Iranian hostage crisis take us back to a shattering moment in US history. The pictures of captured American diplomats and Marine guards being paraded by a mob of Iranian “students” symbolized the decline of the United States from a superpower to a paper tiger that could be humiliated with impunity.

After 442 days, the hostages were released and the defeat of President Jimmy Carter by Ronald Reagan the next year led to a revival of faith in America’s future.

But the lessons of the hostage crisis and the Islamic Revolution that made it possible are more relevant than ever as Tehran celebrates the 40th anniversary of that debacle.

The Islamist regime commemorated the anniversary not only with marches where demonstrators cried “Death to America” and “Death to Israel,” but also with new provocations.

In this case, it was an announcement that Iran had brought online a new set of advanced nuclear centrifuges that could bring it closer to a nuclear weapon in violation of the pledges it made in the 2015 nuclear deal it struck with the Obama administration.

Critics of Trump’s decision to withdraw from the agreement say this proves he was wrong to trash his predecessor’s achievement. They claim Trump’s actions show that America is still being held hostage, ensuring that we remain stuck in a cycle of fear and anger that can only be ended by stepping back from the brink the way Obama did.

But if Trump were to follow that advice — and after his dubious decision to withdraw from Syria, such an outcome is not out of the question — he would merely be headed down the same garden path trod by Carter and Obama.

Trump is right when he says good relations between the United States and Iran are theoretically possible. But the obstacle to that goal is not prejudice against Islam or the legacy of past US interference in that country, as the Iranians and some on the left believe. The problem is the nature of the Islamist government that seized power in 1979 and then solidified its hold by demonstrating its ability to humiliate America.

Both Carter, who helped force the shah of Iran to give up and allow Islamist radicals to take over, and Obama, who believed that the next generation of ayatollahs wanted a chance to “get right with the world,” were locked in a mindset that believed the path to Middle East peace lay in appeasement of such radicals.

Iran was ripe for change in 1979, as the shah’s government tottered and then fell with assistance from Carter. American liberals denounced Iran’s US-backed leader for his human-rights violations and authoritarianism.

Yet the alternative was neither liberal nor democratic but Islamist tyrants who were even more brutal, and implacably hostile to the United States, moderate Arab governments and Israel.

While Iran might be contained, an Islamist regime bent on spreading radical Islam and seeking regional hegemony cannot be converted, as both Carter and Obama naively hoped, into a normal actor on the world stage.

If — as the current Iranian “Supreme Leader,” Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (the successor to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who tormented Carter during the hostage crisis), claims — the United States has been continually outmaneuvered by Iran over the past 40 years, it’s because some American leaders have never learned this fundamental lesson.

That’s why Trump was right to put the screws to Tehran by dumping the nuclear deal and reimposing tough sanctions designed to force it to walk back Obama’s concessions, which only empowered and enriched the ayatollahs.

He’s also right to avoid being baited into a military conflict that would not serve American interests. But in his commendable desire to avoid no-win foreign adventures, Trump might be tempted into thinking he can strike his own deal with Iran that could allow the US to abandon our allies. That would be a colossal blunder.

The anniversary of the hostage crisis is a reminder for Trump of the limits of diplomacy when it comes to dealing with Islamist radicals. He should keep the images of that long-ago crisis in mind when he listens to those who urge him to repeat Carter and Obama’s mistakes.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org. 

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