Even Adolf Hitler respected diplomatic immunity.
By Warren Kozak
May 24, 2010
We measure their rhetoric, we monitor their actions both within their borders and abroad, and we wonder: “Once they get it, would they use it?” But perhaps we are asking the wrong question when it comes to Iran’s race to get the bomb.
That question may have been answered 31 years ago in the very first days of the Iranian Revolution. The regime was barely born when it manifested personality traits that clearly told us this was no ordinary group of rulers. The Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Tehran and established the Islamic Republic on April 1, 1979. Seven months later, on Nov. 4, 1979, the Iranians threw out centuries of international diplomatic rules that every other country on earth observes, stormed the American Embassy, and held everyone inside hostage for over a year. What does tossing out diplomatic immunity really mean? Is immunity some quaint old custom or is there a greater message in this act?
Here’s a clue: In the middle of the bloodiest global conflict in human history—World War II—even Adolf Hitler understood and respected the importance of diplomatic immunity. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. rounded up the Germans and Japanese in their embassies in Washington and put them in hotels under guard (including the luxurious Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia). Germany and Japan did the same with our embassy staffs in Berlin and Tokyo (although their hotels were not as deluxe).
The Swiss negotiated an exchange and within six months all embassy personnel on each side were back home. Hitler and Hirohito understood the mutual benefits of this protocol.
This is not to say the Iranians haven’t used diplomatic immunity when it serves their purposes. On July 18, 1994, a powerful car bomb detonated outside the Jewish Center in Buenos Aires, killing 85 and wounding 300. Although no one has ever been brought to justice for this terrorist act, Argentine prosecutors laid the blame squarely on Iranian government officials tied to their embassy in Buenos Aires. Ahmad Vahidi, the former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, is still wanted by Interpol for his alleged participation in that bombing. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reaction to this indictment? He tapped Mr. Vahidi to be Iran’s minister of defense last year.
From the very start we have conducted our diplomacy with Iran as if it were Belgium, and we seem surprised when we get the same dismal results. President Jimmy Carter tried and failed miserably, ending his political career, and every secretary of state since seems unable to accept that the Iranian leaders don’t negotiate like us, they don’t think like us and they certainly don’t like us. Yet we continue.
Throughout the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama focused his future foreign policy on engagement with Iran, repeatedly distancing his diplomacy from that of George W. Bush. On May 18, 2008, candidate Obama suggested Iran “doesn’t pose a threat to us the way the Soviet Union posed a threat” and he reminded his audience that “Kennedy talked to Khrushchev, Reagan talked to Gorbachev and Nixon talked to Mao.” Backing up his campaign rhetoric, just two months after his inauguration, President Obama reached out to Iran offering “the promise of a new beginning” to be “grounded in mutual respect.”
That respect has hardly been mutual. Iran’s uranium-enrichment plants continue to hum. Its missiles can now reach Western Europe with longer range vehicles on the way. And when Mr. Ahmadinejad clearly says he envisions a world without Israel, many refuse to take him at his word.
Instead, we are reminded that we feared a Soviet bomb in the 1950s and a Chinese bomb in the 1960s and we survived. We have even learned to live with a nuclear North Korea and Pakistan. And while the Iranians have been killing Americans for decades—243 Marines in Beirut in 1983 along with countless IEDs that have been exported to Iraq—we tend to sweep these issues under the rug.
Even the apocalyptic views of its leaders—who believe and await the return of an imam from the 13th century for the day of judgment for all infidels—are ignored, as are those “Death to America” rallies that have been a constant in Iran from the start of the Revolution.
For all the talk about Israel that comes out of Tehran, few seem to remember that the major focus of Iran’s bile since 1979 has not been the Little Satan (Israel) but the Great Satan (the United States).
All of which leads us to the question we should be asking. What if the Iranians mean what they say?
Mr. Kozak is the author of “LeMay: The Life and Wars of General Curtis LeMay” (Regnery, 2009).