The purpose of the hijacking of a Kuwait Airlines plane on December 4 by radical fundamentalist Muslims was clear enough. They hoped to win the release of seventeen fundamentalists convicted of bombing the French and American embassies a year earlier and subsequently held in Kuwaiti jails. But why, if the hijackers sought concessions from Kuwait, did they kill only American passengers, not Kuwaitis? Kuwait faced a difficult choice of whether or not to release the prisoners, but Washington faced no ultimatum, no deadline, no choice at all. Why then did the hijackers go out of their way to stage mock trials of American passengers, and to condemn, torture, and execute them?
The hijackers' purpose was larger and more basic than forcing changes in specific U.S. policies. It was to eliminate the very presence of the U.S. in the Middle East. The hijackers are part of a radical Islamic fringe, largely directed from Iran, which places a high priority on the extirpation of Western civilization from their region. They are prepared to use almost any means to achieve this end.
Few people pursue political goals more alien to Westerners than the fundamentalist Muslims. Their conception of public life emerges from two main thoughts. The first is the dichotomy between the Islamic and the non-Islamic: this applies to food, culture, people, and governments. The second is the burden of the Muslim decline from centuries past to the present. Glories of the medieval period are vividly remembered and compared to the predicament faced today. Obsessed with the backwardness, poverty, and weakness of God's faithful in contrast to the success of Westerners, fundamentalists are determined to make the Muslims great once again.
Fundamentalists who ascribe the Muslims' tribulations today to misguided efforts at emulating the West, view the ways of the West as seductive and evil. Their goal, accordingly, is to remove the temptations of Western civilization--everything from music and sexual customs to businesses—from the purview of Muslims. The United States stands out among the Western countries. This is due in part to its dynamism, the moral tone of its foreign policy, and its unparalleled economic, military, and political power. It is also due to its cultural preeminence: America exports fashions and technical advances, popular customs and influential ideas.
Although the wide appeal of American culture disturbs all fundamentalists, few of them are in a position to combat it. Only in Iran, where a full-fledged fundamentalist leadership has gained power, can fundamentalists methodically address the issue of the American cultural threat. Indeed, Ashgar Musavi Khoeiny, leader of the 1979 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, recently defined the main objective of the Iranian revolution as the "rooting out" of American culture in Muslim countries.
But how to do so? Diplomatic, economic, moral, and other methods of peaceful persuasion cannot work, for Americans obviously will not readily pack up and leave the Middle East. Khomeini's followers therefore resort to coercion; and the coercive means most suitable for them is terrorism. Terror eradicates differences in power between Iran and the United States, and it enables Tehran to take steps not available to Washington.
Although every terrorist act against Americans cannot be directly or unequivocally connected to the Iranian government, circumstantial evidence compellingly suggests that strong ties exist between Tehran and the radical fundamentalist groups throughout the Middle East. Khomeini's regime began aiding these organizations soon after it came to power. Foremost among them are Ad-Da'wa in Iraq; the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain; and three parties in Lebanon: Hizbullah (Party of God) and shadowy organizations called Islamic Jihad and Islamic Amal. In the words of a Hizbullah leader in Lebanon: "Khomeini is our big chief. He gives the orders to our chiefs, who give them to us. We don't have a precise chief, but a committee."
The regional movements do not hide the inspiration Khomeini provides. A member of Hizbullah was recently quoted as saying, "Our slogan is 'death to America in the Islamic world.'" More succinct is the graffito found on many walls in Beirut: "We are all Khomeini."
Iran and the Lebanese fundamentalists agree on the value of terror against the United States. Husayn Musavi, leader of Islamic Amal, called the 1983 attack on the Marine barracks "a good deed." For its part, the media in Tehran portrayed this attack as an act of "popular resistance," and the Iranian government conspicuously avoided condemning this and other suicide attacks. In the Kuwait Airlines hijacking, collusion between the Iranian government and the terrorists appears a virtual certainty.
A pattern emerges as anti-American incidents recur. Not surprisingly, the American government looms largest as the fundamentalists' enemy. American embassies have therefore been the victim of choice for fundamentalists' attacks—the one in Tehran occupied twice, the one in Kuwait bombed once, the one in Beirut bombed twice. The U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut were destroyed. An attempt to blow up the United States Embassy in Rome was foiled in early November by the Italian police.
But other major American institutions are also important targets. Note the affiliation of the four Americans plucked off the streets of Beirut during the past year and taken hostage: a political officer at the U.S. Embassy, a correspondent for the Cable News Network, a Presbyterian minister, and a university librarian. The American government, media, churches, and universities are considered threatening by Iran and its agents. "We are not afraid of economic sanctions or military intervention," Khomeini explains. "What we are afraid of is Western universities." Fundamentalists kidnapped David Dodge, president of the American University in Beirut, in July 1982 and held him for a year; Dodge's successor, Malcolm Kerr, was assassinated in January 1984.
There is every reason to expect such aggression to continue and even accelerate. In November 1984 a member of Islamic Jihad threatened to "blow up all American interests in Lebanon ... We address this warning to every American individual residing in Lebanon." The likely victims will include those already attacked as well as a significant addition—multinational corporations. Their widespread presence in the Middle East, their exposed position, and their controversial activities are likely to make them an irresistible mark for radical fundamentalists.
The effects of more attacks will be deeply felt. Commercial organizations will leave as soon as the expense and effort of coping with terrorism exceeds the benefits to be gained by staying. Embassies, churches, schools, and news bureaus have no such clear measure; they will presumably remain longer in the Middle East, but only by becoming more discreet and adding multiple layers of protection around themselves. Such protection works but it also diminishes the effectiveness of these institutions—exactly what the fundamentalists strive for.
Fundamentalist terrorism represents a new challenge for Americans. Precisely because the goals of the fundamentalist Muslims are so sweeping, strategies against the Iranian campaign of terror are difficult to formulate. Appeasement, usually the wrong response anyway, is out of the question. The United States government cannot abandon the Middle East, much less force American citizens to do so. And the vast majority of Muslims in the Middle East do not want Americans to depart.
What steps can the United States take to prevent further incidents? To begin with, three considerations rule out a direct strike against Iran. First, the United States cannot take actions that risk bringing the Soviet Union into Iran, for this would facilitate Soviet control of the Persian Gulf and render that region's oil flow even more vulnerable than it already is. Washington cannot take chances supporting provincial rebels or exiled opposition groups whose activities might lead to Iran's territorial disintegration. However obnoxious the Ayatollah's policies, the American interest in keeping the Soviets out requires that the government in Tehran retain firm control over the entire country.
Second, Iranian military targets are out-of-bounds. Attacking them would mean in effect joining Iraq's war effort against Iran, which would align Washington with the aggressor in the Iraq-Iran war and push Iran further into the Soviet camp; and, far from reducing acts of terror against American citizens, cooperation with Saddam Hussein, Khomeini's mortal enemy, would increase them. For these reasons, all Iranian targets with military value, regardless how insignificant or remote, and all important economic facilities, such as the oil-exporting port of Kharg Island, must be inviolate.
Third, the United States is restricted by its own standards of morality; it cannot imitate the Iranians and strike out blindly against civilians.
These three reasons effectively prohibit any American action against Iran. However, if Iran itself escapes retaliation, its agents abroad—and especially those in Lebanon—need not. Radical fundamentalist Muslims under Iranian control have been present in the Baalbek region of Lebanon since December 1979. They now devote most of their efforts to establishing an Islamic republic along Iranian lines in the Baalbek area. According to the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar, Hizbullah had at its disposal about three thousand fighters in September 1983 in the Bekaa valley, which includes Baalbek; recent estimates put its numbers at about five thousand.
The anarchic conditions of Lebanon made Baalbek an ideal base for Iranian terror. Hizbullah is connected to the September 1984 bombing of the embassy in Beirut, the bombing in Kuwait, and the hijacking of the Kuwait Airways plane. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for both explosions at the embassy in Beirut, the bombing of the Marine barracks, and the failed effort in Italy.
Striking the radical fundamentalists in Baalbek avoids the risks associated with striking Iran itself. It would not destabilize the government in Tehran, and the Iranians in Lebanon are not involved in the war with Iraq. But they are actively engaged in terror. Though not the ultimate source of anti-American activity, the Baalbek facilities are its most immediate agent.
The United States has often threatened retaliation against the radical fundamentalists, but has not yet carried through. As correspondent Philip Taubman explained in The New York Times on October 5, "practical and policy reasons" prevented a retaliatory strike on Hizbullah for its role in the September 1984 bombing in Beirut. Taubman reported that intelligence aides had advised against an air strike because Hizbullah's leaders and followers never assemble in one place, and any strike would risk killing innocent civilians. A ground attack was ruled out because of the difficulty of introducing commandos into Baalbek. In any case, there was "a widespread belief among Mr. Reagan's aides that a retaliatory strike against the Party of God [Hizbullah] or Iran would only produce an escalation in terrorist attacks against the United States."
These reasons for inaction no longer suffice. If the United States lacks the capabilities for air strikes or commando raids, these must be developed immediately. The enemy's practice of surrounding himself with innocents cannot be allowed to inhibit all American use of force. And the fear of provoking more terrorist attacks carries no weight in the aftermath of the Tehran hijacking outrage.
Only by establishing that a heavy price will be exacted for every injury to Americans will terrorists be discouraged from further atrocities. Secretary of State George P. Shultz has taken pains to prepare the way politically for just this sort of action. Punishment of those who are most implicated and most vulnerable—those in the Baalbek region—presents the best opportunity to protect Americans and their interests in the Middle East.