Newt Gingrich: Thanks to Trump, Iran's 40-Year War Against the U.S. May Finally Be Ending | Opinion

President Donald Trump Wednesday gave the most honest, direct speech about the Iranian dictatorship that has ever given by an American president. It was a refreshing break from the lies and self-deception that have characterized much of the American establishment's efforts to avoid thinking about it.

Watching the various reactions to the killing of General Qassem Soleimani, I have been struck by how historically ignorant most politicians and commentators are—and how our political-diplomatic language and mindset block us from reality.

The reality is: The Iranian dictatorship has been waging war against the United States for more than 40 years.

I was a freshman in Congress in 1979 when the Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was overthrown, and the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini became the dictator of Iran. Khomeini maneuvered brilliantly from Paris to Tehran. He gave the Carter administration smooth reassurances that he feared the Americans too much to be a threat. Once he won, however, Khomeini was quite clear about his hostility to the United States. For the past 40 years, I have watched the Iranian dictatorship wage war on America.

On November 4, 1979, protesters chanting "Death to America" seized the U.S. Embassy in complete violation of international law. Host governments have an obligation to protect embassies. But, in fact, the Iranian dictatorship used the embassy seizure to pressure the United States. When it was clear President Jimmy Carter would not respond forcefully to the attack on our embassy and the hostage taking, Ayatollah Khomeini said "the Americans can't do a damn thing against us," which became a slogan in Iran.

I have listened to a Carter administration official who had been in the negotiations with Khomeini's new dictatorship. The United States offered economic aid, offered to fulfill its military contracts, promised to supply the parts for the American military equipment Iran already had. On every offer, the Iranians responded that they didn't care about any of that. They wanted the U.S. to turn over the shah, who was in exile in the U.S. and dying of cancer, so they could try him and kill him in public. The hostility was implacable and unyielding. Further, "Death to America Day" became a national holiday in Iran in 1987, commemorating the anniversary of the seizing of the American Embassy.

This attitude of American weakness persisted for 40 years and, as Clifford May reported for The Washington Times, "Indeed, on Jan. 1, in response to Mr. Trump's vow to hold Iran's rulers 'fully responsible' for any lives lost at the besieged Baghdad embassy, the supreme leader's official website proclaimed: 'There is no damn thing you can do.'"

Despite every effort of the Carter administration, the 52 American hostages were held for 444 days and released only as Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president. I remember sitting on the platform at the Capitol for Reagan's inauguration and hearing that the hostages had been released. It was an electrifying moment. The Iranians knew they had to take whatever concessions they had gained from the Carter administration through the Algiers Accord and release the hostages, because Reagan wouldn't have given in to any of their demands. He would have saved the hostages and inflicted a high cost on the Iranians.

Still emboldened by what they saw as long-time American weakness under the Carter administration, Iranian attacks on America continued.

As Orde Kittrie has reported for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, U.S. courts found Iran responsible for:

"A Hezbollah truck bomb that killed 63 people in April 1983 at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, including 17 Americans.

"A second Hezbollah truck bomb that destroyed a U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut in October 1983, killing 241 U.S. service members.

"[And] Hezbollah's abduction and torture in Lebanon throughout the 1980s of U.S. citizens working in Beirut, including two journalists, a priest, and three administrators of educational institutions."

On January 19, 1984, Reagan's State Department listed the Iranian dictatorship as a state sponsor of terrorism. This designation has been maintained for 36 years of continuous Iranian support for terrorism.

The most famous example of the Iranian use of a surrogate was Imad Mughniyeh, who operated in Lebanon. He reported to Qassem Soleimani, who was chief of the Quds Force, the most militant and aggressive wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

Mughniyeh was the planner behind the killing of 241 Marines and other service personnel in Beirut in 1983. He was ultimately killed in a joint U.S.-Israeli operation but only after he had terrorized and killed a remarkable number of people.

When the Marines were killed in Lebanon, Reagan rejected an all-out effort to control that country. He was focused on defeating the Soviet Union and did not want to disperse his resources.

However, when the Iranian dictatorship interpreted this as weakness (in the Carter tradition), it learned an expensive lesson. In April 1988, the Iranians hit an American warship with a mine and injured 10 sailors. In a sharp skirmish, the United States destroyed much of the Iranian Navy. They never challenged Reagan again.

After Reagan, the United States took a relatively passive view about Iranian provocations. The Iranians just kept working to expand their terrorist network.

As a result, the scale of the Iranian efforts to fund terrorists and create satellite states they can control is far greater than most Americans think.

Statista's Niall McCarthy reported that the Soufan Center's research shows where Iranian money is flowing in the Middle East and where Iranian-backed proxies and militant groups are active. Syrian proxies receive an estimated $6 billion annually of economic aid, subsidized oil, commodity transfers and military aid. Iraq receives up to $1 billion, some of which ends up in the hands of militia organizations. Lebanon, which is of course home to Hezbollah, sees around $700 million of financial support—practically all of which goes to the militant group. Yemen receives $100 million a year. Afghanistan militants get $2 million annually. Various groups in Gaza including Hamas get about $100 million a year. This is the scale of activity Soleimani was managing in addition to direct Iranian assets.

Furthermore, the Iranian dictatorship's war against America has not been restricted to the Middle East.

According to Kittrie with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, "U.S. federal courts have, over the last two decades, issued some 92 judgments finding the Iranian government and its officials liable for acts of terrorism that claimed American victims." These judgments amount to $53 billion, including $1 billion against the Ali Khamenei, the current supreme leader of Iran, for his responsibility in authorizing the attacks.

In fact, the deadliest anti-American terrorist act of our lifetime has an Iranian component. To quote Kittrie again:

"The September 11, 2001 attacks that killed some 3,000 people. In December 2011, a U.S. District Court found the Iranian government and Khamenei himself among those responsible. The court's lengthy opinion included extensive evidence that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had provided 'funding and/or training for terrorism operations targeting American citizens, including support for Hizballah and al Qaeda' and evidence that IRGC activities were controlled by Khamenei. The opinion also quoted from the 9/11 Commission report that 'Iran furnished material and direct support' for travel for at least eight of the hijackers. The Iranian government, Khamenei, and the other defendants have thus far been ordered to pay over $16 billion in compensatory and punitive damages to the victims."

I was speaker of the House of Representatives when the Iranians deliberately targeted and killed 19 American servicemen in a truck bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996. According to Kittrie, a federal judge found the attack was "approved by Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran at the time."

I remember getting the phone call from President Bill Clinton about the disaster. Yet, despite help from Saudi intelligence, the Clinton administration wanted to avoid proving the Iranians did it. In fact, then-FBI Director Louis Freeh was so frustrated by the Clinton administration refusal to pressure the Saudis to allow a full-scale FBI investigation, he turned to former President George H. W. Bush to get him to ask his friends in Saudi Arabia to help.

Donald Trump
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks from the White House on January 8 in Washington, D.C. Win McNamee/Getty

When Clinton left office, President George W. Bush was fully absorbed by the war in Iraq.

Then President Barack Obama had a fantastical vision of an American-Iranian relationship, which would stabilize the region. He ignored their terrorist activities, sent them $1.7 billion in cash and promised to help release $150 billion in frozen or sanctioned Iranian assets through the faulty Iran nuclear deal.

Given their experience of dealing with strong words but passive policies from some American leaders, the Iranian dictatorship thought Trump would be more of the same.

As May wrote for The Washington Times:

"On Monday, Gen. Soleimani's replacement, Gen. Esmail Ghaani, vowed 'to remove the American presence from the region' and help bring about the 'global rule of the Hidden Imam,' a messiah figure in Shia Islam, one whose will is done through the supreme leader. Yahya Rahim-Safavi, a senior adviser to Ayatollah Khamenei, vowed the U.S. would leave the Middle East 'in disgrace and defeat.'"

Wednesday's speech by Trump is a good warning that the Iranian dictators are misjudging Trump as much as they misjudged Reagan.

We may finally be on a path to ending the 40-year war.

To read, hear and watch more of Newt's commentary, visit Gingrich360.com.

Former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich is the chairman of Gingrich 360, the host of the Newt's World podcast and author of the New York Times best-sellers Understanding Trump and Trump's America.

To read, watch or listen to more of his commentary, go to Gingrich360.com.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

Newt Gingrich: Thanks to Trump, Iran's 40-Year War Against the U.S. May Finally Be Ending | Opinion | Opinion