Today, as a breaking point in the Islamic Republic appears to recede from view as a result of brutal violence, the U.S. appears utterly powerless to influence the course of events. Yet how much better off both Iran and the world would be if the CIA, operating covertly through local friendly forces, could have helped, say, to spark a general strike to topple the ruthless regime of the ayatollahs.

The great irony in all this is that even as the U.S. seeks to claim the moral high ground by not “meddling” — to use Mr. Obama’s term — we and our allies are getting blamed all the same. “There are riots and attacks in the streets that are orchestrated from the outside in a bid to destabilize the country’s Islamic regime,” says Sheikh Naim Qassem, a ranking figure of Hezbollah, Iran’s obedient instrument in Lebanon.

We are thus paying the price of running covert operations even as we gain absolutely none of the benefits. Rebuilding our capacity in this area cannot be accomplished overnight. Meanwhile, as Iran’s nuclear ambitions continue unabated, we may in the end have to pay a high price in treasure and blood for having declined to pay the relatively low cost of mounting secret warfare.