Washington, D.C. -- Twenty-three years ago this week, Iran's self-appointed supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, broadcast a religious edict declaring that author Salman Rushdie and his publishers were "hereby sentenced to death." The fatwa also called for "all the intrepid Muslims in the world" to "execute them quickly, wherever they find them." The U.S. State Department acknowledged the proclamation and issued a statement "condemning this threat in the strongest possible terms." Rushdie, then living in London, did the sensible thing; he went into hiding and has rarely been seen in public since.
Since 1979, when Khomeini returned to Tehran from exile and organized the Islamic Revolution and the hagiocracy that still rules the Persian people, the depth and breadth of Iranian malevolence has consistently shocked and surprised official Washington. President Jimmy Carter believed that "we can find common ground with them." Four hundred forty-four days of Americans being held hostage in Tehran proved otherwise.
In the early 1980s, we could put wire diagrams of every major international terror organization up on a screen in the White House Situation Room. But we missed the explosive growth and cohesion of radical Islamists on a global scale. We were shocked and surprised when the U.S. embassy in Beirut was bombed twice, when the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut were destroyed and when more than a dozen Americans were taken hostage. Some -- including CIA officer William Buckley and Marine Colonel William Higgins -- were brutally tortured and then murdered.
And all Americans -- not just officials in Washington -- were stunned by the hijacking and bombing of dozens of commercial airliners and the murder of Americans. In 1985, when U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem, a passenger on TWA Flight 847, was shot in the head and his body dumped on the Beirut tarmac, there were some in our government who tied the perpetrators to Tehran, but not enough to make a difference.
The imposition of diplomatic and economic sanctions on the regime in Tehran dating back to 1980 has done little to ameliorate or deter the pernicious effectiveness of Iranian terror -- masterminded by Shiite theocrats. Worse, it served as an exemplar for Sunni radicals and thugs like Muammar Qaddafi. When the Libyan dictator ordered a bomb placed aboard Pan Am Flight 103, killing 259 passengers and crew when it plummeted to earth in Lockerbie, Scotland, on December 21, 1988, he was congratulated by the Iranian regime. So, too, were the 19 Sunni "jihadis" from Al Qaeda who carried out the attacks on September 11, 2001, killing nearly 3,000 on U.S. soil in the world's most horrific terror attack to date.
In the aftermath of all of these attacks, American officials testifying before congressional and other "blue-ribbon" panels professed "shock and surprise" that such an act could occur. They wouldn't have been surprised if they had bothered to read what the radical Islamists in Tehran had said and written about how they would do whatever would take to destroy the "Great Satan" and Israel -- dubbed the "Zionist entity" and the "Little Satan." Yet the willful suspension of disbelief continues today.
For months, we have been told by the Obama administration that a "new round of severe sanctions" is going to finally stop Iran's quest to acquire nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them. We're told we finally are going to be joined in this effort by the rest of the "world community." But reality says otherwise. National Intelligence Director James Clapper testified two weeks ago, "The sanctions as imposed so far have not caused them to change their behavior or their policy." Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has been saying for weeks that Iran "could have a nuclear weapon within a year." But then he told reporters that there is a "strong likelihood" that Israel will act militarily against Iranian nuclear sites between April and June. Was he trying to prevent the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from being shocked and surprised?
Neither Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize nor the threat of "new sanctions" matters a whit to Tehran. His inaugural "open hand" to Iranian leaders has been rebuffed. And when it comes to "sanctions," the Chinese and the Russians won't even go along with a "strongly worded U.N. resolution" against Iran's client state, Syria -- much less support the "international community" in doing something that might bring about regime change in Tehran.
Salman Rushdie knows his enemy. When he went into hiding 23 years ago this week, he did the only sensible thing he could do to prevent being shocked and surprised by an adversary intent on taking his life. It begs the question, where will America hide when we're shocked and surprised that the Iranians have the bomb?
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the American Heroes book series and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty.