When does history begin? In February of 1979, the Iranian revolution overthrew the United States–backed dictatorship of the shah. Bret Stephens used his New York Times column to look back at what his headline called “40 Years of Darkness”:
From its beginning 40 years ago this week, the Islamic Republic of Iran has enjoyed the generous benefit of the doubt from credulous observers in the West. History hasn’t been kind to their sympathy.
Speaking of credulous Westerners, how does Bret Stephens feel about the prior 26 years, the time after the CIA overthrew Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, replacing a democratically elected government with a greedy and ruthless monarchy, next to which Ayatollah Khomeini eventually looked like a more tolerable option? His account of darkness in Iran did not mention Mossadegh, or the shah, or the CIA, or democracy, for that matter. There are only these terrible current rulers, who inherited a revolution, which happened for no identifiable reason—and who still rule because, it seems, the West has been too sympathetic to them.
If only the United States had been bold enough to denounce the Iranian regime, or to support its enemy in a devastating regional war for years, or to shoot down an airliner full of Iranian civilians, then maybe the Iranian people would understand that their government was their enemy, and the West had their interests at heart. Stephens wrote that he doesn’t want war with Iran, but a “campaign of economic pressure…a campaign of diplomatic pressure…an intelligence campaign.” Why hasn’t anyone tried it before?
But Bret Stephens, like any hard-minded realist in foreign affairs, has no time for the facts of what actually came before. He is too busy envisioning the future:
Above all, it has to be a human-rights campaign. Liberals and progressives should not find it difficult to join conservatives in championing the rights of women in Iran, particularly women removing their headscarves in public and courageously facing the consequences. Nor should it be difficult for liberals and conservatives alike to call attention to the plight of Iran’s political prisoners, much as both sides were once moved to action by the plight of political prisoners in the Soviet Union or China or South Africa.
Back when there was an idea of something called the free world, led by the United States, Americans cared about such things, and were willing to act. It is not too late for Americans to do so again, when so many are still in the dark.
South…Africa, you say? Back when there was an idea of something called the free world, the supreme goal of American foreign policy was to destroy communism by any and all available means. The only sense in which both sides in America were moved by the plight of South Africa’s political prisoners was that while the left called for their liberation, the right threw its active support behind their jailers.
It was the same fake idealism that led Elliott Abrams to support butcheries in Latin America, and to be outraged when asked to account for them years later. When foreign affairs is a story about fighting formless, implacable evil—creeping international communism, or the “malignant” Iranian regime—anything can be deemed necessary, no matter how harsh. When it’s a series of specific actions, with specific consequences, then someone has to be accountable for the results.