In retrospect, weakness in the face of aggression is almost impossible to understand — or forgive. Why did the West do so little while the Nazis gathered strength in the 1930s? While the Soviet Union enslaved half of Europe and fomented revolution in China in the late 1940s? And, again, while Al Qaeda gathered strength in the 1990s? Those questions will forever haunt the reputations of the responsible statesmen, from Neville Chamberlain to Bill Clinton.
The answer to the riddle — why did the West slumber? — becomes easier to grasp if we think about present-day relations with Iran.
The Islamic Republic has been attacking the West, and in particular the United States, since the day of its birth. A central feature of the 1979 revolution, after all, was the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The resulting hostage crisis allowed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to consolidate power and drove out more moderate leaders. This is the direct inspiration for Tuesday's storming of the British Embassy in Tehran. If violating diplomatic immunity worked once, why not again?
Then, throughout the 1980s, Khomeini and his henchmen in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps worked to spread their brand of militant Islam. They established a beachhead in Lebanon, where Iranian operatives worked with Hezbollah proxies to bomb Western targets (including the U.S. Marine barracks, the French barracks, the U.S. Embassy and numerous Israeli targets) and to kidnap more than 100 Westerners. Iranian and Hezbollah operatives also are widely held responsible for bombing Jewish targets in Argentina in 1992 and 1994 and for the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers U.S. barracks in Saudi Arabia.
Furthermore, the 9/11 Commission report made clear that there were significant links between Iran and Al Qaeda. At a minimum, Iran has provided safe haven to Al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden's son.
There was no Iranian link to the 9/11 attacks, but after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force mounted an active campaign to kill American personnel there. Iran's lethal contribution to one of the deadliest terrorist campaigns in history included the provision of "explosively formed penetrators" capable of punching through the thickest armor, and rockets capable of surmounting the tallest blast walls. Iranians trained Shiite extremists (and probably Sunnis as well) inside and outside Iraq.
All the while Iran was covertly developing nuclear weapons. The Nov. 8 report from the International Atomic Energy Agency presents a devastating portrait of the advanced state of Iran's nuclear program: "Contrary to the relevant resolutions of the [IAEA] Board of Governors and the [U.N.] Security Council," the report notes, "Iran has not suspended its enrichment-related activities." It is also working to weaponize nuclear materials and to develop long-range missiles. Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, said Tuesday that Iran has enough material for four or five nuclear bombs; all that is required is a decision to proceed.
Faced with such provocations, the international community has reacted with scarcely believable passivity. Serious military action against Iran hasn't been tried since the 1980s, the decade that began with a disastrous attempt to rescue the American hostages and ended with a more successful, if limited, 1987-88 "tanker war" in the Persian Gulf to stop Iran from interrupting world oil supplies.
To deal with Iran's menace, the West has relied in part on covert actions (such as — allegedly — the Stuxnet computer virus) but mainly on sanctions. Washington has been sanctioning Iran since 1979, but it has also engaged in ill-conceived outreach efforts, such as the Reagan administration's "arms for hostages" deal. (Some hostages were released; more were taken.) Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama — all have imposed sanctions on the Iranian regime, from asset freezes to travel restrictions. To what effect?
This policy's lack of success can be measured not only in the continuing progress of the Iranian nuclear program but also by Tehran's willingness to carry out other outrageous acts, including the plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington revealed in October and this week's storming of the British Embassy. Clearly, Tehran is not worried about international repercussions, and why should it be? The West has hesitated to take the steps that could cripple the regime's economic base, such as sanctioning Iran's central bank and embargoing its export of petroleum. Yet, at this late date, even such tough actions might not stop Iran from going nuclear.
The only credible option for significantly delaying the Iranian nuclear program would be a bombing campaign. But who imagines that President Obama will do what his predecessor wouldn't — namely, unleash a war against the ayatollahs? The use of force, despite the bluster from Washington about "all options" being "on the table," is not a credible threat (except from Israel), and the mullahs know it.
In short, Western policymakers have implicitly made the same assumption today that their predecessors made in the 1930s, 1940s and 1990s: that an immediate war, even one fought on favorable terms, is to be feared more than a looming cataclysm that is likely to occur at some indefinite point in the not-too-distant future. That was the right decision to make with Stalin's Russia; it was tragically wrongheaded with Hitler's Germany and the Taliban/Al Qaeda.
After the failure to stop Hitler and Bin Laden, among others, Westerners were said to have
suffered a "failure of imagination." We are suffering that same failure today as we fail to face up to the growing threat from the Islamic Republic.
Max Boot is a contributing editor to Opinion and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is completing a book on guerrilla warfare.