The Persistent Hawkish Misunderstanding of the Green Movement
Eli Lake wonders about what might have been if the U.S. had meddled more in Iran during the Green movement protests:
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.
One of the consistent errors that Iran hawks make when talking about these protests is to treat them as if they had the potential to “topple Khamenei” and the entire regime with him. This is why they are always complainingaboutthe“missedopportunity”forregimechangein Iran, but that opportunity wasnever there. Western supporters of regime change in Iran have projected their preferences and goals onto Iranian opposition groups for years, which is one reason why they keep misreading the political landscape there. The protesters weren’t seeking regime change, and couldn’t have achieved it no matter what the U.S. did to “help” them. So they weren’t trying to “change the regime” in this way. They were objecting to election abuses within the existing system. Even if they had “won,” it wouldn’t have produced the results that Iran hawks want. Regardless, most of them didn’t want U.S. support.
As it happens, Lake briefly mentions a major reason why the administration might have thought interfering was a bad idea that had nothing to do with future negotiations on the nuclear issue:
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 [bold mine-DL].
The people in the best position to judge how U.S. support would be received in Iran thought it would harm the protesters, so it has never made sense how there was a chance for a “better outcome” involving U.S. interference. U.S. interference likely would have changed nothing for the better, and there was a much stronger chance that it would have done harm to the very cause it was supposed to help. Hawks generally don’t like the idea that U.S. “aid” can actually be harmful to its recipients, because that means that “inaction” can sometimes be the more constructive and wiser course of action, but in the case of the Green movement protests a hands-off approach was clearly best. Considering how disastrously later U.S. decisions to “take sides” in subsequent upheavals turned out in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere, it is remarkable that anyone would still be trying to fault the administration for doing “too little” to interfere in Iran.