The administration wants to separate its push—now on hold—for another nuclear deal from its tepid support for Iranian protesters. But the two issues are inextricably linked.
By: Jonathan S. Tobin
Apparently, there are some mistakes from which the U.S. foreign-policy establishment thinks it can learn. In 2009, when Iranian protesters thronged the streets of Tehran to protest a rigged election for the president, the United States said and did virtually nothing.
But faced with another surge in protests against the despotic government of Iran, the Biden administration is trying to behave slightly differently. Rather than ignoring or downplaying the efforts of courageous individuals (particularly the women who are defying the oppression of the Islamist morality police) pushing for change, President Joe Biden publicly sided with them during his speech last week at the United Nations General Assembly. His administration has also taken some steps to help restore satellite links and Internet service that the Islamist regime in Tehran has shut down in order to aid its repression.
That’s a commendable step. But, coming as it does after this administration has done so much to strengthen Iran’s theocrats by seeking to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, it’s too little and too late to deserve much praise.
Still, when National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan confessed last weekend that the Obama administration—in which he, Biden and most of the current foreign-policy team served—erred by standing aloof from the struggles of the Iranian people in 2009, it was something of a breakthrough. Such an admission of error was novel in and of itself for a group that operates as if everything it’s always believed and done—especially with respect to the Middle East—was and always will be correct.
Contrary to Sullivan’s grudging acknowledgment, however, the problem wasn’t merely one of tactics, with the U.S. feeling that public support from America would hurt, rather than help, the Iranian freedom-seekers.
At the time, President Barack Obama was just beginning his effort to appease Iran’s theocratic regime. The brutal oppression of the Iranians who dared to challenge that regime—symbolized by the murder of Neda Agha-Soltan by the security forces—came only weeks after he had launched his effort to fundamentally alter America’s approach to the region with a speech in Cairo, Egypt.
In that speech, Obama apologized to Muslims for a generation of U.S. foreign policy and made an analogy between the Holocaust and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. It was the start of a process by which Obama would reorient the U.S. away from its traditional allies in the region, Israel and the Sunni-Arab states led by Saudi Arabia. The object of his initiative was not just to make good on his Cairo promises to renounce what he considered his nation’s sins of the past, or even merely to achieve a rapprochement with Iran. Rather, it was an attempt to shift to a position in which America’s friends would be more or less replaced by a foe as Washington de-engaged from the Middle East. The deal with Iran that enriched the regime and legalized its nuclear program, while ensuring that it would eventually obtain nuclear weapons with Western permission, was key to this strategy.
Part and parcel of this approach was a decision to allow Iran—with Russian military assistance—to save Bashar Assad’s brutal regime in Syria, rather than allow it to fall. Along the way, Obama had to discard his “red line” warning about Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people; acquiesce to mass slaughter in Syria, as well as to the re-establishment of Russia as a military power in the Middle East in a country that shared a border with Israel. In addition, with the wealth that Iran acquired as part of the nuclear pact, it was able to reinforce its terrorist auxiliaries and allies in Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen.
The above developments weakened the security of Israel and the Arab states in the Gulf. This played an unwitting role in the shift of those states away from support for the Palestinians and towards normalization with Israel, which they rightly saw as an ally against Tehran.
The Abraham Accords, which the Trump administration would bring to life, emerged as a result. But so did an understanding of just how much Obama had empowered Iran.
Another consequence of American appeasement of Iran was the strengthening of the regime’s hold on power at home. Democrats have spent much of the last decade talking about what they considered to be a “war on women” being waged by their Republican opponents, due to disagreements about restrictions on abortion. But one of the most significant results of Obama’s signature foreign-policy achievement was to essentially fund and support a real war on women—one waged by the Iranian theocrats who intimidated, arrested, tortured and murdered females who resisted the morality’s police’s efforts to make them dress and behave according to the demands of the ayatollahs.
As we have been witnessing, in the form of mass protests that are reportedly taking place in cities across Iran, the women of that country, as well as many men, have had enough of this treatment. They are rallying around the memory of a new martyr, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died after being brutalized by the morality police for unspecified violations of the country’s hijab rules. These protesters are apparently so desperate as to be willing to risk death at the hands of the authorities in order to make known their desire for change.
That Biden wishes to side with these brave people to the point that he’s even willing to say so publicly is better than Obama’s 2009 stance. But it comes after the Biden foreign-policy team spent the previous 20 months seeking to unravel the “maximum pressure” that former President Donald Trump sought to exert on Iran as part of his 2018 decision to withdraw from Obama’s disastrous nuclear deal.
The Iranians led Biden and his negotiators in a merry dance, demanding more and more concessions without yet agreeing to re-enter the nuclear pact. So, it’s a little late for the Democratic administration to pretend its goal has been to weaken or pressure the murderers of Amini into behaving better.
So long as Biden is still committed to signing an even weaker nuclear agreement with Iran that will send it even more cash and indicate that America is once again anointing it as the region’s “strong horse,” no one can really believe that it is on the side of the Iranian people against their oppressors. With the very real prospect that Biden will make even more concessions in the hope of getting another deal with Iran after the midterm elections, when he will be less accountable to public displeasure with his policies, Iran has every reason to ignore his statements about the protesters.
The corporate liberal media that is still acting as an “echo chamber” on Iran for the Democrats likes to treat the issue of the regime’s abuse of human rights as separate from that of the nuclear issue. But the two are actually inextricably tied together.
As long as the West is willing to enrich and empower Tehran in the form of a new nuclear deal, Iran will be able to go on oppressing and killing women on the streets of its cities. If Biden and the Democrats who defended and fought for Obama’s destructive Middle East vision really want to help the women of Iran, they must do more than pay lip service to their plight at the U.N. They must renounce their nuclear delusions.
And, as bitter a pill as it will be for them to swallow, they must accept that Trump’s efforts to weaken the Islamist regime with tougher sanctions is the only rational policy to pursue.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.