WASHINGTON — The contrast couldn’t have been sharper: In 2009, as Iranians took to the street, they chanted, “Obama, Obama, either you’re with us or against us,” but President Barack Obama remained silent.
Eight years later, as Iranians again took to the streets, President Donald Trump tweeted up a storm. “Oppressive regimes cannot endure forever,” he tweeted. “The great Iranian people have been repressed for many years … TIME FOR CHANGE!” Whose strategy was right?
The answer is clear: Trump’s. The United States should never apologize for standing up for freedom and liberty. True, the protests were neither caused by nor about America but that does not mean Washington should be silent.
The political disagreements on the issue today result from a combination of anger about Trump’s ill-character and historical ignorance.
The United States has long both opposed tyranny and sacrificed to provide moral support for those suffering under it.
During the Cold War, American trade unions opposed communism and spoke out for democracy. Vice President Nixon’s 1959 “Kitchen Debate” with Khrushchev resonated because he so clearly identified communism’s failures.
At the height of the Cold War, President Ronald Reagan shocked Western leaders and diplomats when he called the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire.”
His aides tried repeatedly to strike “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” from his speech at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. Only after the Soviet Union’s collapse were those suffering under its tyranny able to testify how his words were like a shot of adrenaline in a dark hour.
True, in some circles, the practicalities of diplomacy trump broader principle.
Both Democrats and Republicans mocked President George H.W. Bush for initial opposition to Ukrainian independence because he prioritized preserving non-proliferation agreements struck with Moscow over support for freedom, no matter that the regime on the verge of collapse had held the world hostage for almost a half century.
Democrats also pilloried Bush for trying to engage Beijing just two years after Chinese troops brutally suppressed protests in Tiananmen Square. Then Sen. Joe Biden declared that China “is a regime marked by brutality at home and irresponsibility abroad; and it is a regime the United States should now cease to court and must no longer appease.”
Bush’s opposition to the Ukraine and his willingness to sweep Tiananmen under the rug remain black marks on his legacy.
Back to Iran: The Islamic Republic is neither the natural apex of Iranian political evolution nor necessarily permanent. It was an accident of history born of short-sighted animosity toward a cancer-stricken autocrat and the naïveté of those who believed revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini when he said he wanted democracy and had no interest in personal power.
The belief that trade or support for reformers can bring meaningful change to Iran is nonsense.
European trade with Iran almost tripled between 1998 and 2005 during Iranian President Mohammad Khatami’s “Dialogue of Civilizations.”
The price of oil quintupled during the same period. The Iranian leadership used that hard currency to invest in ballistic missiles and a covert nuclear program.
The problem is that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps dominates Iran’s economy. Trade simply pumps money to Iran’s oppressors. This is why working class Iranians turned so quickly on Iran’s security forces during the most recent protests.
Change in Iran, however, is inevitable. Protests have shaken the regime in 1999, 2001, 2009, and today. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s ill-health mean the Revolutionary Guard will soon have no one around which to rally.
True, rhetoric alone won’t change Iran; Iranians will. But, solidarity is sustenance.
In the early 20th century, Iranians briefly had constitutional democracy. They had as much a legacy of democracy as Eastern Europeans did. Trump or no Trump, why not stand on the right side of history?
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise, who has lived in post-revolution Iran. He hold a doctorate in history from Yale University. His newest book is “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes.” Readers may write him at AEI, 1789 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20036.