The following is an excerpt from My FBI by Louis Freeh, in which the former FBI director describes the reaction of the Clinton White House to evidence provided by the bureau that Iran was behind the Khobar Tower attacks of 1996, which killed 19 American servicemen:
…Remarkably (although that’s an insufficient word), Sandy’s people had prepared a script A and script B for spinning the story once it became public…Clearly, someone had been having a nightmare that featured a headline along the lines of “FBI Investigation Determines Iran Responsible for Khobar Attack…It seemed we were here to manage the issue, not do a damn thing about it."
"Wait a minute," I finally said, “are we going to talk about the fact that Iranians killed nineteen Americans?"
…At some point, I tried to catch George Tenet’s eye to give him one of those "What the hell is going on?" looks. Instead, I had to wait to buttonhole him as we were walking out of the meeting.
"Do you believe that?" I asked.
"We have a lot of meetings like that around here," George answered.
The light shined by Louis Freeh on the backroom machinations of the Clinton administration confirms much of what most foreign policy observers already suspected: the Clinton White House was willing to sacrifice the security of the United States for the goal of better relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Khobar Towers incident, while certainly one of the more graphic and disturbing outcomes of this Faustian bargain, is simply one example. During the eight years of his presidency, President Bill Clinton oversaw one of the most damaging and foolish foreign policy initiatives in recent American history: the institutionalized appeasement of Iran.
Born of great expectations and utopian dreams, the containment-by-accommodation policy of the Clinton foreign policy apparatus allowed the mullahs in Tehran to make significant advances in almost every one of their national power matrices: the development of both their conventional military and asymmetrical terrorist capabilities, the expansion of their geopolitical influence, and the rapid growth of the Iranian nuclear program. Perhaps most egregiously, however, was the administration’s refusal to take advantage of the tumult that rocked the Iranian theocracy during the late 1990s, instead issuing only hopelessly muddled missives which enabled Tehran to cement their tyrannical grip on the populace.
The architects of this policy had a long lineage of American grand strategy to draw from. From the Nixon administration to the fall of the Shah, Iran was considered the irreplaceable linchpin of America’s strategic position in the Middle East. Even following the rise of the Islamic Republic, a strain of American foreign policy thought – headquartered in prestigious think tanks such as Brookings and the Council on Foreign Relations – held that improved relations with Iran should be the main focus of American strategy in the Middle East, regardless of Tehran’s repulsive actions and policies.
Proponents of the rapprochement-at-any-cost ideology dominated the Clinton foreign policy team. Chief among these apparatchiks was Martin Indyk, who, as chief Middle East advisor to the NSC, was the main architect of the “dual containment” policy, which sought to limit the influence of both Iran and Iraq simultaneously. Other adherents to the idea of accommodating the Iranian government included National Security Advisor Anthony Lake (and later NSA Sandy Berger), as well as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. This intellectual firepower, teamed with President Clinton’s overarching desire for foreign policy legacy, made “improving” relations with Iran one of the administration’s paramount foreign policy goals.
These forlorn hopes reached their apex in the late 1990s, with the election of President Mohammad Khatami in Iran. Khatami had risen to power on promises that he would be more attentive to the concerns of Iranian youth and women, while sending out several “reformist” signs to the West. The Iranian President – who held a degree in Western philosophy and spoke fluent English – suggested that he was interested in starting a “dialogue of civilizations.” Such statements were music to the ears of the Clinton White House, which was eager to believe in any Iranian declaration that appeared the least bit conciliatory. Their response was overwhelmingly receptive and ridiculously grandiose, with Secretary of State Albright announcing that a “historic opportunity” was possible due to the ascension of Khatami. Going even further, Sandy Berger announced the administration’s fervent wish for an “official dialogue” between the two nations.
While the White House signaled its willingness to talk throughout the 1990s, Iran continued to express its devotion to terrorist violence. During his term of office, President Clinton witnessed some of the worst terrorist operations ever carried out by the Iranian state and its proxies. These included the bombing of Jewish targets in Argentina in 1994, which resulted in the deaths of 86 people. When it became clear that a foreign power – clearly Iran – had helped carry out the sophisticated attack, Argentinean prosecutors requested forensics assistance from the FBI. Perhaps wary of where the investigation would eventually lead, the administration, strangely, denied Buenos Aires’ request for aid.
This unwillingness to hold Iran accountable for its murderous actions continued into the Khobar Towers investigation, when FBI investigators were continuously stymied by a reticent Sandy Berger and U.S. State Department. While rarely finding time to pressure the Saudi royal family for increased cooperation, President Clinton did nevertheless manage to send a secret plea to the Iranians asking for their help in identifying the culprits, years after it had become apparent that Tehran had had a direct hand in the attacks.
Even when Iran threatened Clinton’s beloved Middle East peace process through their arms shipments and financial support to various extremist Palestinian organizations such as Islamic Jihad, the White House could only respond with whimpering pleas to Tehran for cooperation. These overtures were duly ignored by the Iranian leadership, which continued to use their Palestinian surrogates to murder Israelis and derail negotiations at every juncture.
Tehran’s accelerated support of international terrorism eventually became so overt that even team players, such as CIA Director George Tenet, could no longer ignore the constant provocations, telling Congress in 2001 “Tehran, in fact, has increased its support to terrorist groups opposed to the peace process over the past two years.” Seemingly unaffected by such intelligence, the White House plodded on with their appeasement strategy, hoping that by ignoring Iranian terror, they could somehow negate it.
The White House’s new approach to Iran hinged wholly on the cooperation of President Khatami, upon whom was foisted the hopes of the Clinton foreign policy team. On its face, the policy appeared promising. By mollifying Iranian “reformers” and making overtures to the Iranian president, the administration felt it could use Khatami – and his considerable support among the overall population – to limit the power of Iranian hardliners. However, Khatami – an unknown quantity – consistently proved himself unworthy of such deference. Furthermore, his credentials as a reformer were called into question when several quotes, such as “if we abide by the Koran, we must mobilize to kill,” were featured prominently on state television.
Even if Khatami was personally a “reformer” – an issue which still provides fodder for debate – there was little reason ever to believe that he was a figure who could radically alter the dynamic between the United States and Iran. After all, his candidacy had been approved and engineered by the Guardian Council and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, all of whom were sworn enemies of meaningful reform. His power limited by his office’s virtual irrelevance, Khatami attempted only a few cosmetic alterations of the nation’s law and economic policies, all of which were supervised by his fanatic minders. Indeed, when given the opportunity of siding with student demonstrators who took to the streets in the hundreds of thousands in 1999, Khatami quickly threw in his lot with Khamenei and the leaders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, who had urged him to take brutal steps to curb the disturbances. The man so celebrated by the White House as a reformer then addressed his nation by television, calling the pro-democracy activists “people with evil aims.”
The student disturbances which defined the weakness of the Khatami government – dubbed the “Tehran spring” – also offered an intriguing opportunity to the Clinton White House to help enact democratic change within Iran. The idea of a massive revolt by Iranian youth and reformers clearly horrified the mullahs, who were eventually reduced to using troops and militias in order to crush the demonstrations. Had the United States added to their unease by offering at least tacit support – broadcasting messages of solidarity or sympathy – the situation could have resulted in something more positive than the crushing and wasteful defeat which eventually ensued.
The mullahs, however, knew they had little to fear from American interference. In 1995, President Clinton had let it be known through Kuwaiti intermediaries that the U.S. had no intention of challenging the legitimacy of the Iranian regime. Martin Indyk, the architect of the soft-handed approach towards Iran, later declared in a public forum that “the United States is not seeking the overthrow of the Iranian regime.” Wasting his bully pulpit at a critical point, the President could only offer weak platitudes to the throngs of Iranian protesters, suggesting “I think the Iranian people obviously love their country and are proud of their history and have enormous potential. And I just hope they find a way to work through all this and I believe they will.”
Undeterred by the violence, the administration immediately went to work ensuring that the student demonstrations of 1999 had not harmed the possibility of a U.S.-Iran rapprochement. A few weeks after some of the more violent street battles between students and militias had concluded, the U.S. announced a whole new spate of export-law relaxations, allowing the Iranian regime to trade in foodstuffs with the United States for the very first time. Months later, Secretary Albright publicly called for a “global settlement,” while apologizing for the U.S. role in the 1953 coup against Mohammad Mossadeq, an act of contrition to which Iran responded with its usual caustic bravado, with the Supreme Leader Khamenei declaring “What good does this admission – that you acted in that way then – do us now?” The message to the students and their oppressors was unmistakable: the White House would never let sympathy for democratic activists undercut their main policy goal of eventual detente.
Iranian terrorism and the government’s brutal repression were not the only threatening acts ignored by a Clinton team hungry for improved relations. While the White House announced overture after overture, Iran was constructing a conventional and nuclear capability that placed it on an irrevocable trajectory towards regional power status. This included massive arms purchases, ostensibly from the Russians, including Kilo-class submarines, MiG-29 fighters and modern artillery. Perhaps most disturbingly, Iran was known by the CIA and other intelligence agencies to be pouring millions of dollars into its ballistic missiles programs, platforms which would bring Israel and Western Europe within striking distance of Tehran’s military.
The Clinton efforts to stem this Russian-supplied buildup were characteristically negligible. Wary of upsetting the Yeltsin government on which the entire U.S.-Russian relationship was anchored, the administration’s Russian specialists – led by Strobe Talbott and Al Gore – refused to bring up Russian missile sales with the Russian leadership in a serious manner. At the same time, President Clinton neglected to sign the congressionally-approved Iran Missile Proliferation Sanctions Act of 1998, stating that such an affront to Iran and Iranian-affiliated businesses would “undermine the national security objectives of the United States.” Russian firms which were in direct violation of U.S. statutes, such as the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, were actually rewarded by the administration, which later waived sanctions in order to maintain “positive” relations with Moscow.
The Clinton policy may originally have had – as its architects forcefully suggest – good intentions. In retrospect, however, the administration’s policy-by-platitude did nothing to chasten the Iranians in their support for Islamic terrorism or their pursuit of regional hegemony. Based on the faulty assumptions that reformists within the Iranian government had far more influence than they actually did, the Clinton administration saw fit to impulsively abandon its national security responsibilities in pursuit of a foreign policy mirage.
While defenders of the policy will charge that the rise of Iranian power was made inevitable by strategic and geographical realities, these critics cannot challenge the underlying reality that the United States stood largely prostrate while Iran’s influence grew in numerous respects. Whether a pro-active stance against Iran would have resulted in a more positive outcome is, of course, hypothetical. However, with America now facing an emboldened Iran seemingly hell-bent on expanding its power and influence, it is hard to envision a more negative outcome than the one which eventually stemmed from the appeasement policy of the late 1990s.
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