The RealignmentIn the Middle East, Biden is finishing what Obama started. And his top advisers are all on board.
As protests continue to rage in Iran, with more than 2,000 demonstrations in over three months across all of Iran’s provinces and Iranians demanding regime change and “death to the dictator,” the place to start to answer the question of how we got ourselves into this mess is an earlier Iranian uprising: the 2009 Green Revolution. Then, the fraudulent reelection of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in an even more blatant act of election manipulation than had been common in the Islamic Republic, led to massive pro-democracy demonstrations in Tehran.
The 2009 demonstrations were bigger in size than anything since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, including the current protests. The Green Revolution had clear leadership with support inside some elements of the regime itself; it arguably represented a more cohesive and threatening political opposition to the regime than this year’s leaderless street demonstrations. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself said that the 2009 protests had taken the clerical regime “to the edge of the cliff.” So why did the 2009 Green Revolution fail?
The key to the regime’s successful campaign of repression in 2009 was America’s decision to appease the Islamic Republic at the expense of the Iranian people. The demonstrators were clearly looking outward with the expectation of Western support, especially from the young, supposedly idealistic, newly elected American president. When Obama instead took pains to reassure the Iranian leadership of his commitment to engagement, he made it clear to the demonstrators that they were on their own against their jailers. Within a few weeks, the would-be revolution collapsed.
In the moment, many people outside Iran cut Obama considerable slack. It was just the beginning of his presidency, and his focus was clearly on getting out of Iraq, as he had promised. Yet, in retrospect, there is something disturbing about what Obama did in 2009 that looks even more troubling from the vantage point of Syria, Crimea, and the Donbas, and America’s continuing inability to forget about the JCPOA.
Why did Obama so comprehensively and demonstratively turn his back on the Iranian democracy protesters in 2009, in what was his first major foreign policy decision as president? It is a deep question, especially since Obama himself, after bipartisan and European support swung behind the 2022 protests, has belatedly acknowledged that his lack of support for the Green Revolution was a mistake.
The first set of answers again lies in the familiar area of realpolitik: Obama didn’t want any distractions in getting the United States out of Iraq, and he saw Iran as the keystone to a smooth withdrawal. Angering the Iranian leadership would only lead to greater American casualties, which could cause a political firestorm, with Obama blamed for getting U.S. soldiers killed. That would force him to surge in more troops to Iraq to assuage the Pentagon and Congress, rather than withdrawing them.
Yet Obama had a problem in carrying out his withdrawal from Iraq: Congress was passing tough sanctions on Iran over the objections of the White House. In response, he wrote letters to Iran’s supreme leader offering an end to U.S.–Iranian hostilities and greater political and economic engagement. As the regime took Obama’s messaging as a green light to rapidly increase its influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and Gaza, even as America’s Sunni allies warned of a “Shiite crescent” that threatened their own stability, Obama did little to confront Tehran.
Yet Obama’s strategic priority in 2009 was not to cement a U.S. deal with Iran at any cost. It was to engage with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was seen as the commander of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. Obama characterized Erdogan as the type of moderate Muslim leader that could help him stabilize a turbulent Middle East. Turkey was a NATO member and major Middle Eastern military power. Engaging with Erdogan and the Muslim Brotherhood also meant taking out Egypt’s authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak, who had repressed the Brotherhood, and stood in the way of the Arab Spring.
It is possible from one angle to see Obama’s support for the Arab Spring as support for democracy in the Middle East. Yet as his decision to turn his back on the Iranian pro-democracy protesters suggests, Obama was hardly a supporter of regional democrats. Nor was he particularly interested in supporting Iraq’s struggling democracy, which he saw as a tar pit that would only prolong U.S. engagement in the region—which he strongly opposed. In place of U.S. engagement, Obama supported anti-Western, “one election” Islamists who, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Erdogan in Turkey, and Khamenei in Iran, used and abused democratic mechanisms to gain and keep power. His preference was not for democrats per se, but for anti-imperialists who overthrew or sought to overthrow autocratic U.S. allies.
Yet the Arab Spring turned out very differently than Obama expected. When the Arab Spring in Egypt led to the takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian military, backed by many secular Egyptians who had demonstrated against Mubarak, launched a coup to restore secular authoritarian rule. In Syria, a democratic uprising led to a brutal crackdown by Bashar Assad, with support from Iran-backed ground troops.
The failures of the Arab Spring meant the collapse of Obama’s vision for a Middle East led by the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates. It was only after that vision collapsed that Obama sent his advisers Jake Sullivan and Bill Burns to Oman in 2013 to explore nuclear negotiations with the Iranians—in the hopes of finding another Middle Eastern power aside from Turkey that could “stabilize” the region in the wake of America’s withdrawal from Iraq.
Unsurprisingly, Iran often seemed to exist for Obama not as a threat to U.S. interests but as a historical victim of Western imperialism, which supposedly overthrew a “democratically elected” Iranian prime minister and installed the shah. Iran’s repressive theocratic regime seemed less notable for its blatant offenses against its own people, or its efforts to destabilize neighboring states, than for its role as the bête noire of warmongering neoconservatives in the United States, who supported a regional structure that put America on the side of troublemakers such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. Faced with the choice between the Islamic Republic and its enemies, Obama found it surprisingly easy to take the side of the mullahs—putting himself and the United States crossways both to U.S. interests and the hopes and dreams of the Iranian people.
Obama’s big Iran play, which continues to shape U.S. regional policy to this day, was therefore neither “values-driven” nor purely pragmatic. His apparent goal was to extricate the United States from a cycle of endless conflict—one of whose primary causes, as he saw it, was Western imperialism. In doing so, Obama sought to be the first anti-imperialist American president since Dwight Eisenhower, who had backed Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser against the British, French, and Israelis in the 1956 Suez war. (Eisenhower later admitted that backing Nasser and abandoning the United States’ traditional allies had been one of the biggest mistakes of his presidency.)
Yet the Iranians were not, in fact, powerful enough to play the “balancing” role Obama envisioned for them, as their failure to stabilize Syria proved. He therefore stood aside, willingly or not, as the Russians intervened on the Iranian side to bomb the Syrian resistance. For rescuing the Islamic Republic and its allies in Syria, Putin was allowed to invade Crimea and the Donbas with minimal opposition from the Obama administration.
Anti-imperialist narratives were clearly important to Obama, and make sense as products of his unique upbringing. The fact that they utterly failed to correspond to regional realities caused multiple problems on the ground in the Middle East. Obama’s policy of trying to put the United States on the side of his own preferred client states created a slaughter in Syria that in turn led to multiple other slaughters throughout the region. The rise of ISIS was fueled partly in response to vicious Iran-backed attacks against Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis. The shocking rise of the Islamic State required Obama to send U.S. troops into Syria and back into Iraq. It also emboldened Putin, who invaded Ukraine for the third time in 2022.
Obama’s ongoing and catastrophic policy failure, which has blocked the Biden administration from developing any kind of workable strategic vision for dealing with current realities in Iran and throughout the region, demonstrates that substituting American narratives about purity and guilt for hard-power realities is a dangerous business. Ideologically driven anti-Western narratives led the United States to place dangerous and wrongheaded bets on Sunni Islamists and Shiite theocrats at the expense of our own interests and friends. Poorly executed policy led to a fatally flawed nuclear agreement that continues to bedevil the Biden administration and America’s European and Middle Eastern allies. The JCPOA was a big mistake. The longer we refuse to admit that, the higher the price we will continue to pay.