Cliff May

“America cannot do a damn thing.”

A banner displaying that slogan adorned the stage of an elegant mausoleum in Tehran where Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appeared last week. Negotiations to conclude a deal ending Western sanctions on the Islamic republic, the world’s foremost sponsor of terrorism, in exchange for a verifiable halt to its nuclear weapons program, are now in a critical phase with a new round of talks to begin Monday in Geneva. At this moment, it would make sense for Iran’s rulers to soothe and reassure their American interlocutors. Why are they provoking and taunting them instead?

Because they can. They are convinced that the U.S. government is as feckless and self-deluding today as it was when “America cannot do a damn thing” was first proclaimed, 35 years ago this fall, by Iran’s revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei, after his followers seized the American Embassy in Tehran and took the diplomats working there hostage.

Doing so was not just a violation of international law. It was a casus belli — an act that unquestionably would have justified going to war against the fledgling Islamic republic. Instead, President Jimmy Carter launched a rescue attempt that failed. After that, he utilized diplomacy to no effect.

Ayatollah Khomeini would go on to hold America’s diplomats hostage for 444 days, the remainder of Carter’s tenure, releasing them only as Ronald Reagan was entering the White House. An important lesson was taught: When the threat of force is credible, the use of force often becomes unnecessary.

But teaching is not synonymous with learning. At the mausoleum last week, the current supreme leader triumphantly told Iran’s uniformed, religious and political elites that the military option President Obama has often said is “on the table” is now in the trash bin of history. A “military attack is not a priority for Americans now,” he said. “They have renounced the idea of any military actions.” That he believes this represents a defeat for the United States and a victory for the Iranian Revolution goes without saying.

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.