In retrospect, weakness in the face of aggression is almost impossible to understand — or forgive. Why did the West do so little while the Nazis gathered strength in the 1930s? While the Soviet Union enslaved half of Europe and fomented revolution in China in the late 1940s? And, again, while al-Qaida gathered strength in the 1990s? Those questions will forever haunt the reputations of the responsible statesmen, from Neville Chamberlain to Bill Clinton.

The answer to the riddle — why did the West slumber? — becomes easier to grasp if we think about present-day relations with Iran.

The Islamic Republic has been attacking the West, and in particular the United States, since the day of its birth. A central feature of the 1979 revolution, after all, was the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The resulting hostage crisis allowed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to consolidate power and drove out more moderate leaders. This is the direct inspiration for Tuesday’s storming of the British Embassy in Tehran. If violating diplomatic immunity worked once, why not again?

Then, throughout the 1980s, Khomeini and his henchmen in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps worked to spread their brand of militant Islam. They established a beachhead in Lebanon, where Iranian operatives worked with Hezbollah proxies to bomb Western targets (including the U.S. Marine barracks, the French barracks, the U.S. Embassy and numerous Israeli targets) and to kidnap more than 100 Westerners. Iranian and Hezbollah operatives also are widely held responsible for bombing Jewish targets in Argentina in 1992 and 1994 and for the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers U.S. barracks in Saudi Arabia.

Furthermore, the 9/11 Commission report made clear that there were significant links between Iran and al-Qaida. At a minimum, Iran has provided safe haven to al-Qaida leaders, including Osama bin Laden’s son.

There was no Iranian link to the 9/11 attacks, but after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force mounted an active campaign to kill American personnel there. Iran’s lethal contribution to one of the deadliest terrorist campaigns in history included the provision of “explosively formed penetrators” capable of punching through the thickest armor, and rockets capable of surmounting the tallest blast walls. Iranians trained Shiite extremists (and probably Sunnis as well) inside and outside Iraq.

All the while Iran was covertly developing nuclear weapons.

The Nov. 8 report from the International Atomic Energy Agency presents a devastating portrait of the advanced state of Iran’s nuclear program: ”Contrary to the relevant resolutions of the (IAEA) Board of Governors and the (U.N.) Security Council,” the report notes, ”Iran has not suspended its enrichment-related activities.” It is also working to weaponize nuclear materials and to develop long-range missiles ...

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