Iran Has Knack for Humiliating U.S. Presidents
By GEORGE GEDDA - Associated Press - Wednesday June 18, 2003 9:59 AM
In debating what to do about Iran, President Bush might consider the outcome of attempts by two predecessors to deal with that country. For both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, the results were, if not ruinous, something close to it.
Iran might seem like a fitting candidate for the administration to apply its doctrine of pre-emptive action: Iran is thought to be developing nuclear weapons, has an advanced missile program, maintains ties to terrorist groups, possibly including al-Qaida, and is run by conservative mullas who are deeply hostile toward the United States.
The Bush administration is banking on diplomatic pressure to encourage Iran to rethink its nuclear program. It is confident the International Atomic Energy Agency's board of governors, meeting this week, will find Iran to be in violation of its obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a step that could put the issue before the U.N. Security Council. Recent disclosures about the Iranian nuclear program seem to have brought Russia and the European Union closer to Washington's position.
It is not clear what the administration has in mind for Iran beyond providing moral support for its broad-based reform movement, weary of a generation of Islamic fundamentalist rule. As some in the administration see it, a hands-off policy is not feasible because, according to estimates, Iran could have nuclear weapons by 2006. This, in, turn, could induce countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt to join the nuclear club.
For its part, Iran denies that it has nuclear weapons ambitions. It maintains that its nuclear program is designed solely to generate electricity, thus freeing its oil and gas reserves for export. Few here buy that explanation.
After a generation as a pro-American bulwark in the Persian Gulf, Iran's shift to enemy status following the 1979 revolution may have been the most serious strategic setback for the United States since World War II.
For Carter, Iran was a nightmarish problem from the time the American hostages were taken in Iran on Nov. 4, 1979, until he left office 14 months later. His inability to bring the hostages home cost him dearly in the November 1980 elections. He won six states.
For Carter the low point occurred in April 1980, barely a year after being praised for bringing Israel and Egypt together in a peace treaty. With the hostage crisis in Iran in its sixth month, Carter ordered a rescue operation to be carried out by Delta Force commandoes.
Bad weather at a rendezvous point in Iran called Desert One forced two helicopters to drop out. A third helicopter collided with a fuel-laden C-130 transport plane, killing eight men. The mission was aborted.
Secretary of State Cyrus Vance said it was a ``harebrained'' scheme to begin with and resigned, sparing him the need to defend the operation in the aftermath. As superpower misadventures go, this one ranked with the Bay of Pigs.
Reagan had his own Iran-related disaster. During his second term, he approved the sale of arms to Iran in hopes it would lead to the release of seven American hostages held by Iranian-backed militants in Lebanon. Indeed, three hostages were released, only to be replaced by three others.
It was the darkest period of Reagan's presidency. He had violated not only an embargo on arms sales to Iran but also a promise not to negotiate with terrorists.
Public indignation over the fiasco was compounded when it was disclosed that proceeds from the arms sales were diverted to Nicaraguan anti-communist rebels in violation of a law barring such support.
Unlike Carter, Reagan managed to ride out his Iran-induced headaches, his popularity rebounding before his second term ended in 1989. Now, the question arises: Have the mullahs finally met their match in President Bush? Or will they be able to humiliate yet another American president?