(by Bret Stephens, The Wall Street Journal) – On Wednesday an Iranian-American named Manssor Arbabsiar pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiring with Iranian military officials to blow up a restaurant in Washington, D.C. On Saturday, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration and Iran had secretly agreed “in principle” to hold direct talks after the election, a disclosure to which the White House responded with a lawyerly denial.

And so it goes with U.S. policy toward Iran. They are at war with us. We seek bilateral negotiations and confidence-building measures with them.

That is a point that—as I write this column ahead of the final presidential debate—I [hoped] to hear Mitt Romney hammer home when the subject of Iran inevitably comes up. Barack Obama told “60 Minutes” last month that “if Gov. Romney is suggesting we should start another war, he should say so.” Sorry, Mr. President: When it comes to Iran, the mullahs started that war a long time ago. Wishing facts away doesn’t change them.

United States Navy Seabee diver who was killed by Hezbollah militants.

Here’s a list of the American victims of Iranian aggression: The 17 Americans killed in April 1983 at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut [Lebanon] by the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad Organization, later known as Hezbollah. The 241 U.S. servicemen killed by Islamic Jihad at the Marine barracks in Beirut on Oct. 23, 1983. Master Chief Robert Dean Stethem, beaten to death in June 1985 by a Hezbollah terrorist in Beirut aboard TWA flight 847. William Francis Buckley, the CIA station chief in Beirut, tortured to death by Hezbollah that same month. Marine Col. William Higgins, taken hostage in 1988 while serving with U.N. peacekeepers in Lebanon and hanged by Hezbollah sometime later. The 19 U.S. Air Force personnel killed in June 1996 in the Khobar Towers [Saudi Arabia] bombing, for which several members of Saudi Hezbollah were indicted in U.S. federal court.

And then there are the thousands of U.S. troops killed by improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan. The most lethal IEDs were manufactured in Iran for the purpose of killing Americans.

Let’s also not forget the 52 American diplomats held hostage in Tehran for 444 days; the hostaging in Lebanon of Americans such as Thomas Sutherland and Terry Anderson; the de facto hostaging of American backpackers Sarah Shourd for 14 months and of her companions Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer for more than two years; the capricious imprisonment of Iranian-Americans visiting Iran such as Kian Tajbakhsh, Haleh Esfandiari and Roxana Saberi; the mysterious disappearance and apparent hostaging in 2007 of former FBI agent Robert Levinson; and the current imprisonment—under a suspended death sentence—of former U.S. Marine and defense contractor Amir Hekmati.

This has been Iran’s record, which needs rehearsing because we tend so easily to forget it. What about the record of our responses?

As my Iranian-born colleague Sohrab Ahmari notes in the current issue of Commentary magazine, successive U.S. administrations responded with a menu of make-nice gestures. Ronald Reagan refused to authorize a military strike on an Iranian military base in Lebanon in retaliation for the Beirut bombings: Instead, he sent the Ayatollah Khomeini a personally inscribed copy of the Bible. There was no retaliation for Khobar: Bill Clinton was trying to tease out “moderates” in the Iranian government by apologizing for the 1953 Mossadegh coup—which Islamist clerics of the day had supported. George W. Bush never took direct military action against Iranian munitions factories producing IEDs: Instead, in his second term he adopted a policy of de facto engagement with Iran that was all but the opposite of his first-term rhetoric.

Which brings us to Mr. Obama. It would be unfair to say that the president’s outreach to Tehran has been unprecedented. What’s depressing is that it is too-precedented. It would also be unfair not to acknowledge the “unprecedented” sanctions he has imposed on Iran. But again, the depressing fact is that they are more campaign prop than policy tool—which explains why he has been waiving their provisions at every opportunity.

And now we have the New York Times story, whose chief interest, assuming (as I do) that it is true, is that the Obama administration [believes] the idea that Iran’s leaders want to bargain away the nuclear program they have sacrificed so much to develop and are now within sight of acquiring.

Maybe the president thinks decency obliges him to give diplomacy another chance. But it is from an excess of decency that 33 years of Iranian outrages have gone unavenged, and Iran now proceeds undeterred. Sensible policy on Iran begins not with the question of how to avoid a war—that war was foisted on us in 1979—but how to win it. Anything less invites further terror and dishonors the memory of Iran’s many American victims.

Published October 22, 2012 at The Wall Street Journal. Reprinted here October 25, 2012 for educational purposes only. Visit the website at wsj.com.


NOTE TO STUDENTS:  This commentary is challenging.  But it is important for all Americans to consider what U.S. policy on Iran should be.  Read the article twice before answering the questions.  Look up definitions for unfamiliar words as you read.

1.  What is the main idea of Bret Stephens’ commentary?

2.  List the attacks on Americans by the Iranian government as described by Mr. Stephens in his commentary.

3.  List the reaction to Iranian attacks on Americans by previous American presidents described by Mr. Stephens.

4.  Mr. Stephens concludes his commentary with this proposed solution:  “Sensible policy on Iran begins not with the question of how to avoid a war—that war was foisted on us in 1979—but how to win it. Anything less invites further terror and dishonors the memory of Iran’s many American victims.”  Do you agree with his assertion?  Explain your answer.


Read about the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, 1983: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khobar_Towers_bombing

Read about the U.S. Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, Lebanon in 1983: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1983_Beirut_barracks_bombing