The Spanish philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Western policymakers have repeated history not because they have been ignorant of history, but because paying attention would make it difficult for them to adopt policies that conform with their prejudices.
This is the unavoidable conclusion of the lessons not learned from the Islamic revolution in Iran, which marked its 40th anniversary last week.
In the years leading up to the Khomeinist revolution, and the forty years of the Islamic Republic, the fictions that misinformed the CIA, the State Department, and the governments of allied nations in 1979 have survived more or less unscathed.
From time to time, U.S. administrations set them aside in favor of reality. But they always returned to the fore.
President Donald Trump is the first president who appears willing to reject altogether these prejudicial predispositions of the foreign policy elites. But he is fighting an uphill battle.
The foreign policy establishment in official Washington vehemently opposes Trump’s approach to Iran and the wider Middle East.
They share two damaging predispositions.
The first is the casual anti-Americanism of the left. Anti-Americanism, in this context, is not a desire to see America destroyed. In its mild form, it manifests itself in a general sense that anti-Western forces are justified in their hatred of the U.S. and U.S.-supported regimes.
But all the same, left-leaning American and European foreign policy hands were and remain predisposed to believe the worst about their own countries, and their allies and clients.
This anti-American predisposition has blocked U.S. (and European) policymakers from understanding reality in two ways.
First, it blinded them to the good in their allies. The Shah of Iran was the most liberal leader in the Muslim world. Under his leadership, the Iranians lived in freedom and prosperity far beyond their Muslim neighbors in the Persian Gulf, Asia, and Africa.
But rather than support him as he gave full rights to women and respected the freedoms of worship of non-Muslim minorities, American officials, reporters, and human rights activists were predisposed to believe even the most exaggerated allegations of human rights abuses put forward by the Shah’s enemies.
Furthermore, the anti-American attitude prevalent among Western policymakers in Washington and Europe blinded them to the avarice and inherent hostility of the forces seeking to overthrow or otherwise harm their allies. If the Shah could do no right, then even when his adversaries did wrong, American policymakers and analysts were predisposed to make light of their crimes and even to justify them.
The second damaging predisposition of U.S. and European foreign policy elites that made it practically impossible for them to understand either pre-revolutionary Iran or post-revolutionary Iran was – and remains – antisemitism, or in the politically correct doublespeak, anti-Zionism.
Khomeini was a genocidal antisemite, while the Shah was Israel’s strategic ally, and Khomeini and his fellow revolutionaries sent their forces to undergo training with Palestinian forces in Lebanon. Yet there has been a pronounced tendency, in 1979 and still today, to think that opposing the ayatollahs isn’t in America’s interests, but rather in the Jews’ – or the Israelis’ – interests.
This state of affairs was made clear last week with the publications of two important retrospectives on the Iranian revolution. The first was a book review published by independent Middle East analyst Kyle Orton on his personal website. Orton reviewed Andrew Scott Cooper’s history of the Iranian revolution: The Fall of Heaven – The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran.
The second was an article by Tony Badran, a Syria expert and fellow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies about the role the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) layed in forming the Khomeinist regime.
Perhaps Orton’s key insight was to recall the true distinctions between Shah Muhammed Reza Pahlavi and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The Shah undertook Herculean efforts to liberalize Iranian society and modernize the Iranian economy. Khomeini, bu contrast, devoted his efforts to propagandizing and inciting against liberalization, human rights, and modernization and in favor of Islamic fanaticism, revolution, and totalitarianism.
Westerners concerned about human rights and freedom had every reason to support the Shah and oppose Khomeini. But instead, they did just the opposite. They believed every allegation about the regime’s torture and persecution, even as the Shah took unprecedented steps to minimize torture and give civil rights and freedoms to all Iranians.
On the other hand, from as early as 1963, Khomeini was giving speeches and sermons inciting riots and calling for the regime to be overthrown. In 1970, he gave a series of sermons from his exile in Iraq setting out his vision of an Islamic regime in Iran that would be totalitarian, fanatical, and actively seeking to overthrow the international order and replace it with an Islamic world order run by a revolutionary Iranian empire.
Khomeini’s sermons were sold in cassettes on street corners around Iran. They were compiled into a book called Islamic Government.
Every pernicious aspect of the Islamist regime in Iran that he founded nine years later was found in those speeches.
And yet, as Orton notes, U.S. officials and intelligence agencies didn’t simply ignore it. The CIA alleged that Israel’s Mossad fabricated it.
The truth about Khomeini was also to be found in the operational alliance that he formed with PLO chief Yassir Arafat in Lebanon in the 1970s. This partnership was the subject of Badran’s article. As Badran noted, Arafat was the first “foreign leader” to visit Khomeini in Iran after the revolution.
Arafat’s visit made perfect sense. As Orton and Badran wrote, Arafat and his PLO played a central – indeed pivotal – role in setting up the Islamic regime, albeit in embryonic form – from their state-within-a-state in Lebanon in the 1970s.
As Badran recalls, like most terror groups worldwide, all of the Iranian opposition forces sent terrorists to the PLO training camps in Lebanon. Arafat and his comrades trained them all enthusiastically. The Shah’s close ties with Israel made him Arafat’s enemy.
Responding to the concern Khomeini’s representatives voiced that any regime they formed would be overthrown in a military coup, Arafat’s operative Anis Naccache conceived the formation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as the “main pillar” of the future Islamic regime.
The PLO also trained the Shiite terrorists, led by Imad Mughniyeh, who shared Khomeini’s ideology. These PLO-trained terrorists called themselves the Party of God, or Hezbollah.
Orton relayed that PLO terrorists arrived in Tehran shortly after the Shah departed to shore up the Khomeinist forces and pave the way for their seizure of power.
The PLO’s role in facilitating Khomeini’s rise to power was notable for two reasons. First, it pointed to the instrumental role Khomeini assigned to terrorism, both to seize power and to maintain it in Iran. His position as the supreme leader of Hezbollah and his view of the terror group as a sort of terrorist foreign legion for his Islamic revolution pointed to his intention to export his revolution outside of Iran and carry out terror attacks worldwide.
The second reason the PLO’s relationship with Khomeini and his followers was important was because it pointed to the PLO’s radicalism and sinister intentions, not only towards Israel, but towards the U.S. and the West as a whole.
Arafat’s decision to use his state-within-a-state to train anti-Western terror groups from throughout the world made him both the godfather and architect of global terrorism, and a dangerous enemy of the U.S. led free world. His willingness to assist Khomeini showed that the convenient distinction between secular and Islamist was completely off the mark as far as the PLO was concerned.
But judging both by contemporaneous and subsequent events, it is clear that U.S. policymakers failed to accept any of these self-evident conclusions. Many still do.
Badran recalled that the Carter administration asked Arafat to mediate the hostage crisis. According to Israeli and Egyptian officials, Carter nearly scuttled peace talks between Israel and Egypt in an attempt to force both sides to make their peace contingent on PLO empowerment.
From the Clinton administration on, every White House has viewed the Palestinian terror group as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and as a legitimate political actor.
As for Khomeini and his followers, as Iran scholar Michael Ledeen has noted repeatedly, every U.S. administration has sought to cut deals and reach accommodations with the ayatollahs. All have embraced the delusion that the regime is divided between revolutionaries and moderates. Hence, the Clinton administration insisted that then president Mohammed Khatami was a moderate, even as he brutally repressed the student protesters in 1999.
In 2007, the Bush administration accepted the National Intelligence Estimate that falsely claimed Iran had abandoned its nuclear program in 2003. And in 2014, the Obama administration based its nuclear diplomacy with Iran – diplomacy that paved Iran’s path to a nuclear arsenal – on the false assertion that President Hassan Rouhani is a moderate.
Just as the Carter administration ignored Khomeini’s own writings and his ties to the PLO, and viewed concerns about both as Israeli propaganda, so in these subsequent encounters with the Iranian regime, U.S. officials dismissed or held suspect evidence that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons or otherwise undermining regional and global security as Israeli propaganda.
Facing this wall of cynical disbelief, last year Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu felt compelled to risk the lives of dozens of top Mossad operatives and send them to Tehran to take physical possession of Iran’s nuclear archive, and spirit it out of the country.
There are plenty of lessons to learn from the Iranian revolution that brought Iran and the world the now 40-year-old nightmare of the Islamic regime.
But as far as the West is concerned, the first lesson must be that you cannot understand the Middle East – or anything for that matter – if you judge events and people through the filter of irrational prejudice.