The protests have also energized foreign policy hawks here in the United States. Ever on the lookout for self-gratifying moral binaries, they’ve found one in the aspirational demonstrators challenging Iran’s theocratic regime, and the usual hackneyed rhetoric has been hauled out accordingly. The Trump administration is exhorted to Not Stay Silent, as though starving Iranians are waiting on pins and needles for the go-ahead from Rex Tillerson. Barack Obama’s diplomatic team, which pursued a rapprochement with Iran’s government, has come in for fresh scorn. And the nuclear deal with Tehran, implemented under Obama and menaced by Donald Trump, is said to be discredited, a morally pusillanimous endorsement of the Iranian regime’s legitimacy that clearly isn’t shared by its people.
That last argument in particular is immensely historically illiterate. If negotiating with a government is the same as legitimizing it, then Ronald Reagan, who inked arms reduction agreements and prisoner swaps with Mikhail Gorbachev, was a booster of Soviet tyranny. (And indeed some of the hawks who deify Reagan today called him a Chamberlain back then.) George W. Bush is also guilty of appeasement for signing an arms treaty with Vladimir Putin and trying to usher Erdogan’s Turkey into the European Union. Perhaps in some geopolitical Brigadoon the United States can afford to zero out every human rights abuser, but here in the real world we must work with nations that often aren’t gallant democracies. It was in America’s interests to see Iran’s nuclear enrichment curtailed. The idea that pursuing that goal diplomatically was a betrayal of the Iranian people is preposterous.