Al Khamenei greets Nasrallah
Al Khamenei greets NasrallahIran News Agency -JNS

The 1979 Islamist takeover of Iran occurred at a time of political uncertainty and psychological self-doubt for the United States. Americans were still reeling from the repercussions of the Vietnam War and the Watergate Scandal.

Besides, learning the lessons of the past, Washington was no longer willing to bolster an unpopular dictator, the Shah of Iran, in the face of what looked like a popular revolution, especially that the CIA had already saved him once in 1953.

Although the Cold War was still in full swing, Washington had lost incentive to resolutely safeguard its vital interests in the Middle East. As such, when Islamists were about to takeover Iran, pundits in DC thought that replacing the Shah with the Ayatollah was not such a bad idea as long as the revolutionary regime would exercise strategic continuity and keep the Soviet Union out of Iran and the Persian Gulf.

What the pundits grossly underestimated was the Islamists’ very own potential for causing havoc and disrupting the liberal world order on a par with communists. As soon as they took over Iran, they unleashed chaos on the Middle East. Trying to export their bloody revolution to the region, taking American diplomats hostage, pushing Iran towards war by provoking Iraq’s Shiite community to topple Saddam Hussein, and stoking fire in the Lebanese civil war by creating Hezbollah were only the most conspicuous acts of violence Islamists immediately committed.

The collapse of the Communist Bloc in the early 1990s and the ouster of the Ba’ath regime in Iraq in the early 2000s opened up vast opportunities for Tehran’s project of expansionism and empire building. It was then that the Iranian regime embarked upon a serious quest for nuclear power, widely developed its proxy forces across the region, and started to encroach upon the autonomy and national sovereignty of Arabs by installing pro-Tehran Islamist “militia governments” within their governments.

The United States has since struggled to live with the Islamist regime in Iran as a reality on the ground. Washington, under various administrations, be them Democratic or Republican, has tried different measures to mitigate Tehran’s malevolence. This has included appeasement and punishment, with the Nuclear Deal as an example of the former and Qasem Soleimani’s assassination as an instance of the latter. But as Tehran’s malice only ever grows, this uneasy relationship is becoming increasingly untenable.

Islamists are inherently apocalyptic, interventionist and expansionist. They consider the total loss of the West and its allies in the Middle East essential to their ultimate goal of establishing an “Islamic World Government.” As such, they do whatever they can to erode the liberal order anywhere around the world. That includes infiltrating Latin America to undermine U.S. security, aiding and abetting Russia to batter Ukraine, feeding underpriced contraband oil to China and North Korea, and provoking Houthis to disrupt global shipping in the Red Sea. Not to mention that the Islamists are only inches away from the atom bomb and holding the threat of a nuclear holocaust over the head of their foes in the region and beyond.

As the Biden administration, following the lead of the Obama administration, is pursuing a policy of appeasement towards Tehran and is still hopeful to revive the JCPOA, Washington reacted too late and with too little to the escalation of conflict by the Iranian regime. This led to an exponential increase in Tehran's aggression, not only against US security interests but also Israel. Hamas’ widespread terrorist attacks on Israel came about first and foremost because Islamists sensed a slackening of American deterrence in the Middle East. And they subsequently mounted nearly 200 attacks on American bases and troops in the region since October 2023, finally killing three military personnel and wounding many more.

Neutralizing Iranian proxy forces and their military capabilities in the Middle East is necessary but not sufficient. Tehran almost easily replaces them in no time because the life of a proxy is cheap and cash is always flowing. Throughout the years, the US and Israel have repeatedly struck Iranian assets across the region, but this has proved of little impact in the grand scheme of things. Tehran and its proxies can lay low for a while under fire, but as soon as the coast is clear they will reappear and resume their mischief.

The US needs a paradigm shift towards Iran. Washington needs to examine its longstanding assumptions towards Tehran and fundamentally revise them. Giving concessions will not placate Islamists; it will only embolden them to create more chaos. And it’s no longer only Iran and the Middle East; Western nations are increasingly overrun by the Islamists’ active interference in the workings of society and government. Of course, we must not overlook the role of pro-Tehran lobbying groups and undercover influence operations by the regime’s Left-wing and Right-wing agents of influence in the West that have been eating away the foundations of Western security and democracy from within.

Hitting hard high-profile Islamists inside Iran is a legitimate retaliatory measure when Tehran dares to draw American blood. The U.S. must target regime leaders, senior officials, and IRGC generals. Other legitimate targets are military, paramilitary and logistical facilities as well as industrial and commercial infrastructure belonging to the regime leaders and the Revolutionary Guards. These individuals and assets are irreplaceable, or at least it will take a long time for the regime to replace them. In addition, attacking such targets clearly demonstrates to Tehran that Washington is quite serious when it comes to protecting its soldiers and security interests.

All that, in turn, will shatter the regime’s aura of invincibility in the eyes of the desperate Iranian people and give them heart to rise up against the tyrants in Tehran and get rid of them once and for all. And this, in my opinion, should be Washington’s ultimate goal: to facilitate the fall of the Islamist regime and preside over the establishment of a liberal democracy in Iran. Only then will Iran become a respectable member of the world community that nurtures its neighbors and contributes to peace, prosperity and democracy around the world.

Reza Parchizadeh, PhD, is a political theorist, security analyst, and cultural critic. He is a Ginsburg/Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum.