Obama ordered CIA not to support 2009 Green Movement in Iran because he wanted to court Khamenei
As demonstrations and revolts swept the Muslim world during Obama’s first term, he was enthusiastic. He had encouraging words for the “Arab Spring” demonstrators in Egypt and Tunisia, and even gave military assistance to their Libyan counterparts. During the third and last debate of the 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney and Obama sparred over which could express support for the Syrian rebels (who are dominated by Islamic jihadists) more strongly, and as Obama’s second term began, his administration was inching ever closer to military aid for those rebels. Yet there have now been three large-scale demonstrations in Muslim countries that Obama did not support — and those three exceptions are extraordinarily revealing about his disposition, as well as his policy, toward Islam.
The three pro-democracy revolts that Obama refused to support were arguably the only two that were genuinely worthy of the pro-democracy label: the demonstrations against the Islamic regime in Iran in 2009, the anti-Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations in Egypt in winter 2013, and the pro-secularism demonstrations in Turkey in recent weeks.
There is a common thread between these three that distinguishes them from all the others: in Egypt in late 2012 and early 2013, as well as in Iran in 2009, the demonstrators were protesting against Islamic states; in Turkey, they were protesting against the Erdogan regime that is working hard now to establish an Islamic state. All the other demonstrations were not against pro-Sharia forces, but were led by pro-Sharia forces, and led to the establishment of Islamic states.
To be sure, the Iranian demonstrators in 2009 contained many pro-Sharia elements that simply objected to the way the Islamic Republic was enforcing Sharia, but they also included many who wanted to reestablish the relatively secular society that prevailed under the last Shah. Whether the Sharia or the democratic forces would have won out in the end is a question that will never be answered — in no small part thanks to Barack Obama.
In every case Barack Obama has been consistent: in response to the demonstrations and uprisings in the Islamic world, he has without exception acted in the service of Islamic supremacist, pro-Sharia regimes.
The Obama administration’s nuclear deal was intended to keep Iran from pursuing an atomic bomb, and raised hope in the West that Tehran would be nudged toward a more moderate path.
But there are growing fears in Washington and Europe that the deal—coupled with an escalating conflict with Saudi Arabia—instead risks further entrenching Iran’s hard-line camp.
Since completion of the agreement in July, Tehran security forces, led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have stepped up arrests of political opponents in the arts, media and the business community, part of a crackdown aimed at ensuring Mr. Khamenei’s political allies dominate national elections scheduled for Feb. 26, according to Iranian politicians and analysts….
But the ranks of reformists in Iran have been depleted. Many activists are angry at the Obama administration for failing to support them six years ago in a rebuff that hasn’t been previously reported.
Iranian opposition leaders secretly reached out to the White House in the summer of 2009 to gauge Mr. Obama’s support for their “green revolution,” which drew millions of people to protest the allegedly fraudulent re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The demonstrations caught the White House off guard, said current and former U.S. officials who worked on Iran in the Obama administration.
Some U.S. officials pressed Mr. Obama to publicly back the fledgling Green Movement, arguing in Oval Office meetings that it marked the most important democratic opening since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Mr. Obama wasn’t convinced. “‘Let’s give it a few days,’ was the answer,” said a senior U.S. official present at some of the White House meetings. “It was made clear: ‘We should monitor, but do nothing.’ ”
The president was invested heavily in developing a secret diplomatic outreach to Mr. Khamenei that year, sending two letters to the supreme leader in the months before the disputed election of Mr. Ahmadinejad, said current and former U.S. officials.
Obama administration officials at the time were working behind the scenes with the Sultan of Oman to open a channel to Tehran. The potential for talks with Iran—and with Mr. Khamenei as the ultimate arbiter of any nuclear agreement—influenced Mr. Obama’s thinking, current and former U.S. officials said.
U.S. officials said the White House also was getting conflicting messages from Green Movement leaders. Some wanted Mr. Obama to publicly warn Mr. Khamenei against using force. Others said such a declaration would give Iran’s supreme leader an excuse to paint the opposition as American lackeys.
Mr. Obama and his advisers decided to maintain silence in the early days of the 2009 uprising. The Central Intelligence Agency was ordered away from any covert work to support the Green Movement either inside Iran or overseas, said current and former U.S. officials involved in the discussions.
“If you were working on the nuclear deal, you were saying, ‘Don’t do too much,’ ” said Michael McFaul, who served as a senior National Security Council official at the White House before becoming ambassador to Russia in 2012.
After a week of demonstrations, Iran’s security forces went on to kill as many as 150 people and jail thousands of others over the following months, according to opposition and human rights groups. Mr. Khamenei accused the U.S. of instigating the uprising. Iran denied killing protesters.
Some of Mr. Obama’s closest advisers, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton , said in retrospect the U.S. should have backed the Green Movement. “If we could do it again, I would give different counsel,” said Dennis Ross, Mr. Obama’s top Mideast adviser during his first term. At the time, he said, he argued against embracing the protests.
A senior U.S. official said this week that the Obama administration argued against covert support for the Green Movement because it risked undermining its credibility domestically, not out of fear of Mr. Khamenei’s reaction. “We did not want to tar the movement,” the official said.
Mr. Obama pursued nuclear diplomacy with Iran using a two-track approach: ratcheting up economic sanctions while leaving the door open for direct negotiations.
Over the next four years, international sanctions cut Iran’s oil exports in half, and the value of its currency, the rial, dropped by two-thirds. The U.S. also succeeded in shutting off most of Iran’s financial institutions from the global economy, including Iran’s central bank.
In 2012, the White House, working through Omani intermediaries, set up the first direct talks with Iran. A year later, Mr. Rouhani was elected, and the negotiations moved more quickly toward an agreement.
Mr. Obama’s advisers said the White House’s cautious handling of Iran’s political opposition was the best course in 2009. The Green Movement wasn’t unified, they said, and didn’t have much of a chance to overthrow the regime.
Former presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who led the protests, remain under house arrest in Tehran, despite pledges by Mr. Rouhani to release them. Thousands of student leaders and democracy activists who took to the streets six years ago were exiled to Turkey, Europe and the U.S., fearing arrest if they return home.
At a recent oil conference in Tehran, Mr. Rouhani’s energy minister, Bijan Zanganeh, answered questions about oil production and job promotion in the wake of the nuclear agreement. When pressed about the status of political prisoners, which include Messrs. Mousavi and Karroubi, he didn’t answer and instead jumped into a waiting SUV.
“A historic opportunity was missed” six years ago, said former Green Movement leader Heshmat Tabarzadi in an interview via Skype in Tehran. He has served intermittent jail terms there since 2009.
“There isn’t much of a Green Movement left,” he said.