Obama Let Iranís Green Revolution Fail
By Eli Lake
August 24, 2016
One of the great hypotheticals of Barack Obama's presidency
involves the Iranian uprising that began on June 12, 2009, after Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad was announced the winner of contested presidential elections. What
if the president had done more to help the protesters when the regime appeared
to be teetering?
It's well known he was slow to react. Obama publicly
downplayed the prospect of real change at first, saying the candidates whom
hundreds of thousands of Iranians were risking their lives to support did not
represent fundamental change. When he finally did speak out, he couldn't bring
himself to say
the election was stolen: "The world is watching and inspired by their
participation, regardless of what the ultimate outcome of the election
But Obama wasn't just reluctant to show solidarity in 2009,
he feared the demonstrations would sabotage his secret outreach to Iran. In his
new book, "The
Iran Wars," Wall Street Journal reporter Jay Solomon uncovers new
details on how far Obama went to avoid helping Iran's green movement. 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
Solomon reports that Obama ordered the CIA to sever
contacts it had with the green movement's supporters. "The Agency has
contingency plans for supporting democratic uprisings anywhere in the world.
This includes providing dissidents with communications, money, and in extreme
cases even arms," Solomon writes. "But in this case the White House
ordered it to stand down."
At the time, Solomon reports, Obama's aides received mixed
messages. Members of the Iranian diaspora wanted the president to support the
uprisings. Dissident Iranians from inside the country said such support would be
the kiss of death. In the end, Obama did nothing, and Iran's supreme leader
blamed him anyway for fomenting the revolt.
It's worth contrasting Obama's response with how the U.S.
has reacted to other democratic uprisings. 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.
Iran though is a very different story. 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.
It's debatable whether the U.S. ever did support such a
policy. But it's striking the lengths to which Obama went to make good on his
word. 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
His quest to engage the mullahs seems to have influenced
Obama's decision-making on other issues too. 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.
Obama eventually did get a nuclear deal with Iran.
Solomon's book shines in reporting the details of the diplomacy that led to the
2015 accord. American diplomats held two sets of negotiations with Iran -- one
public channel with the British, Chinese, European Union, French, Germans,
Russians and the United Nations -- and another, bilateral track established
through the Sultanate of Oman. In 2013, U.S. officials shuttled on public busses
between two hotels in Geneva to conduct the two tracks before telling their
negotiating partners about the formerly secret channel to Iran.
Eventually, the Iranians wore down the U.S. delegation. At
the beginning of the talks in 2013, the U.S. position was for Iran to dismantle
much of its nuclear infrastructure. By the end of the talks in 2015, Secretary
of State John Kerry and his team "agreed that Iran would then be allowed to
build an industrial-scale nuclear program, with hundreds of thousands of
machines, after a ten year period of restraint."
Other U.S. red lines were demolished too. The final deal
would allow the U.N. ban on Iranian missile development to phase out after eight
years, and the arms embargo against Iran to expire after five. Iran would not
have to acknowledge that it had tried to develop a nuclear weapon, even though
samples the Iranians collected at its Parchin facility found evidence of
In one particularly revealing passage, Solomon captures the
thinking of Kerry, who engaged in detailed negotiations over the deal in the
final months of the talks. "So many wars have been fought over
misunderstandings, misinterpretations, lack of effective diplomacy," Kerry
told Solomon in a 2016 interview. "War is the failure of diplomacy."
Kerry's diplomacy succeeded. But the Middle East got war
nonetheless. "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."
There was a chance for a better outcome. There is no
guarantee that an Obama intervention would have been able to topple Khamenei
back in 2009, when his people flooded the streets to protest an election the
American president wouldn't say was stolen. But it was worth a try. Imagine if
that uprising had succeeded. Perhaps then a nuclear deal could have brought
about a real peace. Instead, Obama spent his presidency misunderstanding Iran's
dictator, assuring the supreme leader America wouldn't aid his citizens when
they tried to change the regime that oppresses them to this day.