Earlier this week, reports circulated that National Security Adviser John Bolton had asked to see the Pentagon’s plans for striking the Islamic Republic after one of its Iraqi proxy forces fired mortars in the direction of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Ray Takeyh argues that, contrary to the horrified response of the media, force—and even the credible threat of force—has a track record of success in dealings with the ayatollahs, unlike the approach taken by some American presidents:
No president was more concerned with the Islamic revolutionaries’ sensibilities than Jimmy Carter. Even after Iranian militants stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took American diplomats hostage, Carter hoped to resolve the crisis in a manner that did not jeopardize the possibility of resuming ties with the theocracy. Such deference helped prolong the crisis for 444 days and essentially doomed Carter’s presidency. . . .
[By contrast, in] the summer of 1988, there was an ongoing conflict between American naval ships and Iranian speedboats laying down mines in the Gulf waters. As the confrontation on the high seas was taking place, an Iranian passenger plane was making its way to Dubai. As the aircraft approached, the USS Vincennes mistook it for a hostile vessel and shot it down, killing 290 passengers.
Despite days of mourning and incendiary speeches, Iran’s reaction was basically subdued, as Tehran appreciated that the asymmetry of power militated against escalation of the conflict. The one dramatic consequence of the downing of the passenger plane was that it finally convinced the clerical elite that it was time to abandon the war with Iraq, [which had been going on for eight years, since] they mistakenly believed [it] was a prelude to America’s entering the war on Saddam Hussein’s behalf with the purpose of overthrowing the Islamic Republic. Even Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who was indifferent to loss of human life, proved too respectful of American power to persist with a war that he felt might now include the United States. . . .
Donald Trump and Bolton are the latest American policymakers to unsettle the Islamic Republic. The signs coming out of the White House may at times be ambiguous, but the tough talk and the tough actions have had an impact in Tehran. The U.S. has withdrawn from the flawed Iran nuclear deal and re-imposed sanctions on Iran that have knocked off nearly a million barrels from its oil exports and crippled its economy. And yet the U.S. has faced no retaliatory Iranian response. . . . Why? Because it respects and fears the power of the United States when wielded appropriately.