Home/Daniel Larison/Hawkish Iran Fantasies and the “Missed Opportunity” for Regime Change That Never Existed

Hawkish Iran Fantasies and the “Missed Opportunity” for Regime Change That Never Existed

Dan Drezner noticed one of the more glaring flaws in Jennifer Rubin’s list of supposed mistakes by the Obama administration:

Rubin, Romney et al want the Obama administration to be blunt about its desire to depose the current Iranian regime. This kind of policy statement does have the virtue of simplicity: it ends the negotiation track and leaves only military force as a viable option. Of course, such an approach would also spur Tehran into accelerating its nuclear program. And, again — short of a ground campaign — Iran’s regime ain’t going anywhere.

GOP foreign policy advocates want to argue that Obama screwed up in 2009. Understand, however, that when they argue that the United States should have taken more forceful action three years ago, the only forceful action that would have mattered was another ground war.

That’s right. One thing I would add to this is that the idea that Obama missed a major “opportunity” to topple the Iranian government in 2009-2010 is revisionism that started shortly after the protests petered out in 2010. It has been a recurringthemein Republican arguments on Iran policy. Since they can’t articulate any real disagreements with most of Obama’s Iran policy since mid-2009, they keep coming back to Obama’s “poor handling” of the protests as their main complaint. It even showed up in Brooks’ recent panegyric, as if Obama’s mishandling of the Green movement protests were something so obvious and universally accepted that even Brooks had to concede the error. It doesn’t seem to bother them that it makes no sense and never has.

This revisionism is all the more grating because the proposed alternatives for what Obama should have done fall far short of anything that would have seriously destabilized the Iranian government, much less overthrow it. It was only quite recently that any Republican proposed that Obama ought to have armed the Iranian opposition, which was a measure that administration critics never entertained publicly when the protests were going on. In that case, Krauthammer was taking hawkish proposals for Libya and Syria in 2011-2012 and inserting them into the 2009-2010 Iran debate retroactively. No, at the time critics said that Obama was supposed to “speak out” more forcefully in support of the protesters than he did, and because he “failed” to do that he missed the chance to bring down the regime. This was Green Lanternism and the cult of the Presidency at its worst.

Drezner offers another reason that this revisionism is absurd:

Recall that, during the uprising, the Green Movement wanted nothing to do with more sanctions against Iran or with military action — it took them six months of brutal repression for them to even toy with embracing targeted sanctions. Indeed, the reason the administration tiptoed around the Green Movement was that they did not want the Khamenei regime to taint the resistance as a Western-inspired creation.

More than that, Green movement leaders did not want overt U.S. support when the protests were going on. The idea that most protesters were eagerly seeking U.S. backing was always a fantasy, as was the related belief that Obama “let them down” by not providing it. One of the more important facts about the Green movement was that it wasn’t seeking regime change, but rather sought redress of their political grievances within the existing system. There never was an opportunity for Iranian-led regime change in 2009-2010, because even most of the Iranians that were protesting the current leadership’s actions weren’t interested in doing Western Iran hawks’ work for them.

Revisionism on the Iranian protests is an expression of a common hawkish and especially neoconservative belief that democratization and U.S. policy goals advance in tandem. According to this belief, the Green movement’s goals must have been the same as those of Iran hawks that desire regime change, because the Green movement was appealing to certain democratic principles. Even though the movement sought redress for political grievances and reform of the political system, Western hawks assumed that they must want to dismantle the system entirely. In addition to that, an Iran governed by the leaders of the Green movement would be more accommodating on the nuclear issue, because many hawks take for granted that a more democratic government will therefore also be more willing to make concessions to the U.S.

Building on those false assumptions, Iran hawks concluded that the easiest way to “solve” the nuclear issue and overthrow the Iranian regime was to support an Iranian revolutionary movement. There were only a few small flaws in this thinking: the movement in question wasn’t revolutionary, it was no more likely to compromise perceived Iranian interests on the nuclear issue, and it had no intention of overthrowing the regime. Apart from completely misreading the situation and projecting their own agenda onto the protesters, the hawks have really hit on a winning argument.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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