Eli Lake says yes. I say “meh.” It’s not like the guy has a good track record in building durable political movements, after all. He led his party straight into the wilderness at the federal and, especially, state levels. A couple of days exposed to the patented Obama reverse Midas touch and the Iranian protests might collapse under their own weight.
Lake’s right, though, that this is a chance for Obama to make amends for his low-key approach to the Green Revolution in 2009. All he has to do is, ah, admit that his eight-year-long fixation on engagement with the gang of degenerates that rules Iran was a grievous mistake. Piece of cake.
All of this presents a chance for Barack Obama to rehabilitate his reputation. He was late and hesitant to support the Iranian protesters in 2009. They asked him only to recognize that their election had just been stolen. Obama spoke out, but never went that far. In his second term, he completed a nuclear deal with the dictatorship the Green movement of 2009 had challenged.
There is currently a Change.org petition urging Obama to speak out in favor of the demonstrations. That is a good start. But the former president should do more. He should devote his good offices to publicizing the cause of Iranian freedom. No American can lead Iran’s opposition, but Obama’s unique understanding of grassroots activism puts him in an ideal position to lead the Western cause of solidarity. He could organize lawyers, newspaper editors, teachers, librarians and human rights groups to partner Iranians under siege, following the Jewish-American movement to allow Soviet refuseniks to emigrate.
It’s probably true that no single person could do more than Obama could to nudge elite western opinion towards embracing the protesters. Right now the international political class is stuck between (a) the plain fact that the fall of Iran’s terrorist regime would improve life for everyone, starting with Iranians, and (b) their loyalty to not just Obama’s foreign policy “achievements” but his approach to the world. He resisted Republican and Israeli hawks and pressed on with diplomacy to the end of his presidency, finally locking down his dubious nuclear deal. If he had come out hard for the Green Revolution, that might not have been possible. The nuclear agreement was supposed to be a first step towards eventual detente between Iran and the west, proof that the two could cooperate and that enlightened dialogue to entice the mullahs into the “community of nations” or whatever would inevitably cause them to moderate. You can’t hold the olive branch in one hand and then punch them in the face with the other at the first sign of instability. Even if Obama wanted to, what would be the grounds for his sudden change of heart? What’s different in Iran since he left the presidency apart from the people’s boldness in voicing their discontent publicly? Khamenei and Rouhani are the same “partners in peace” who signed off on the nuclear deal.
If he didn’t acknowledge an error of judgment in legitimizing the regime by striking a major agreement with it, at a minimum he’d need to confess an error of judgment in believing that they’d apply the economic gains from the lifting of sanctions to their own people’s welfare. “I thought Khamenei would spend the money on quality of living,” Obama would say, “not by shoveling it at the Quds Force to continue exporting the revolution to Syria and Lebanon.” But he can’t say that either, for the simple reason that every hawk in the world warned him that would happen when he signed the nuclear deal. If Obama’s going to make amends — and there’s no reason to think he will, or even that he believes he has anything to apologize for — he’ll have to say something like, “I don’t regret engagement as I believe the nuclear deal made the world safer. But the Iranian people’s grievances are legitimate and deserve immediate redress.” Something like … this, say:
The Iranian people, especially the young, are protesting for the freedom and future they deserve. I hope their government responds peacefully and supports their hopes.
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) December 31, 2017
Their “hopes” are an end to the Islamic republic, judging by the chanting, rendering Hillary’s tweet meaningless swill. But it’s diplomatic swill, the sort of thing you’ll probably hear from Obama eventually too. It’d be too weird for him to demand regime change after vouching for these cretins by insisting that they’d honor the nuclear deal but he can certainly be broadly pro-protester. And by doing so he’d bring along a lot of bien-pensants with him. He once sneered that right-wingers require a “permission structure” from their thought leaders to deviate from partisan dogma. It ain’t just right-wingers, buddy. Grant your progressive friends some permission.
One wrinkle, though. What effect would it have on Trump to see Obama suddenly elbowing past people to lead the virtual parade in the west for Iranian freedom? A shrewd leader would say nothing, knowing that having his predecessor from the opposition party momentarily on the same side would make it that much easier to unite the country behind the White House’s pro-protester position. But Trump’s gonna Trump:
He wouldn’t be able to resist saying something snarky on Twitter about O being “late to the game” or a bandwagon friend of the average Iranian, etc. And Obama knows it too. In which case, he may be thinking, why speak up and invite that headache? Even if he feels obliged to endure Trump’s taunts for the sake of solidarity with Iranians, he might conclude that a petty partisan squabble between 44 and 45 would be a distraction from what the media should be focused on, namely, the demonstrations.
Speaking of POTUS, he has a big decision coming up on Obama’s nuclear deal. He decertified it a few months ago but the deal remains intact, at least until the next legal deadline. That will come in the middle of this month. Politico speculated a few days before the protests began that Trump was leaning towards suspending it entirely and reinstating sanctions on Iran but the sudden political crisis has complicated that. There’s an obvious argument that the protests will make it easier for him to tear the agreement up now: He can say that it’d be unconscionable to continue to reward the regime when Iranians are making their disgust with mullahocracy plain. The Iranian people themselves are telling the world that the windfall from the nuclear deal has been siphoned off for regional proxy wars rather than for their own benefit. Trump could point to that and claim that it’d be madness to disagree and to keep the money flowing. But there’s an argument that the protests make it harder to jettison the deal too. If he tears it up now, the regime will point to it as a resumption of hostilities by the Great Satan, a moment when Iran must unite to deal with the urgent American threat. How would that play domestically? Would fencesitters begin to see the protesters as saboteurs or foreign agents? Tough call for Trump. Maybe Congress can pass something extending the deadline for his next decision on the Iran deal to give the protests time to play out before the White House has to weigh in.
Devil’s-advocate exit question: If no nuclear deal had been struck and Iran had steamed ahead towards highly enriched uranium, where would they be in the nuclear process now? A non-nuclear destabilized Iran is good news. A nuclear destabilized Iran is very dangerous.