Most readers, I’m pretty sure, recall that in the summer of 2009, after the dubious election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iranians began an uprising. They hoped for support of some kind from the United States. That that support didn’t come.
Instead, as Eli Lake reminds us, President Obama publicly downplayed the prospect of real change, saying that the candidates whom hundreds of thousands of Iranians were risking their lives to support did not represent fundamental change.
Contrast that with his laughable claim that the election of the puppet Rouhani years later showed that Iran had changed to the point where we should end sanctions as part of a nuclear deal.
Behind the scenes, Obama overruled advisers who wanted to do what America had done at similar transitions from dictatorship to democracy, and signal America’s support. He ordered the CIA to sever contacts it had with the green movement’s supporters — this according to a new book, The Iran Wars, by the Wall Street Journal’s Jay Solomon, which Lake discusses.
Obama’s approach to Iran’s “green revolution” stands in marked contrast to how the U.S. has reacted to other democratic uprisings. Lakes points out:
The State Department, for example, ran a program in 2000 through the U.S. embassy in Hungary to train Serbian activists in nonviolent resistance against their dictator, Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic, too, accused his opposition of being pawns of the U.S. government. But in the end his people forced the dictator from power.
Similarly, when Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze met with popular protests in 2003 after rigged elections, George W. Bush dispatched James Baker to urge him to step down peacefully, which he did. Even the Obama administration provided diplomatic and moral support for popular uprisings in Egypt in 2011 and Ukraine in 2014.
Egypt’s Mubarak was America’s staunchest ally in the Middle East other than Israel. Iran was (and is) our biggest enemy. Yet, Obama supported the overthrow of Mubarak but not the mullahs.
It has been clear to me for years that Obama failed to back the green revolution because he wanted to negotiate with the Iranian regime. Lake thinks so too:
Obama from the beginning of his presidency tried to turn the country’s ruling clerics from foes to friends. It was an obsession. And even though the president would impose severe sanctions on the country’s economy at the end of his first term and beginning of his second, from the start of his presidency, Obama made it clear the U.S. did not seek regime change for Iran.
How much of an obsession?
As Solomon reports, Obama ended U.S. programs to document Iranian human rights abuses. He wrote personal letters to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei assuring him the U.S. was not trying to overthrow him. Obama repeatedly stressed his respect for the regime in his statements marking Iran’s annual Nowruz celebration.
Obama’s obsession with dealing with the mullahs seems to have spilled over into his feckless Syria policy:
When he walked away from his red line against Syria’s use of chemical weapons in 2013, Solomon reports, both U.S. and Iranian officials had told him that nuclear negotiations would be halted if he intervened against Bashar al-Assad.
This was only the beginning of Obama’s disregard for his own red lines. As nuclear negotiations proceeded, the president and his Secretary of State demolished one red line after another. Lake provides the details, most of which we presented at or around the time of the deal.
What is the outcome?
“The Revolutionary Guard continues to develop increasingly sophisticated weapons systems, including ballistic missiles inscribed with threats against Israel on their nose cones,” Solomon writes in the book’s concluding chapter. “Khamenei and other revolutionary leaders, meanwhile, fine-tune their rhetorical attacks against the United States, seeming to need the American threat to justify their existence.”
Iran is also a key player in Iraq and Syria. It is the leading power in the Middle East and might well become the dominant one.
Would things have gone differently is the U.S. had backed the 2009 uprising? We’ll never know. Regime change might well have been a long shot, but its rewards would have been massive.
And the risk? Negligible, even if one likes the nuclear deal.
There’s no reason to believe that, in 2015, Iran would have turned down the super-generous nuclear deal Obama offered because of America’s stance in 2009. Either the deal is in Iran’s interests or it isn’t. If it is, the mullahs were always going to snap it up.
It is and they did — unfortunately for the U.S. and the Middle East.