National Security Network

Conservatives’ Dangerous Iran Response Runs Off the Rails

Print this page
Report 17 June 2009

Iran Iran Barack Obama john mccain


Despite the almost unanimous opinion of serious Iran experts that it would be very harmful to the demonstrators if the United States were seen as directly supporting them, conservative political leaders - such as Mike Pence, Eric Cantor, and John McCain - and thinkers – such as Robert Kagan – have insisted that the United States do just that. Ascertaining the motives of these conservatives is difficult – are they so blinded by ideology that they actually don’t recognize that U.S. meddling would play into Ahmadinejad’s hands and would potentially further endanger Iranian demonstrators; or are they simply trying to score cheap political points by attacking Obama. But what is clear is that their cries, recommendations, and critiques are reflective of a conservative movement that on foreign policy has run off the rails.

Calling for the United States to directly support the protests – even symbolically – could place the demonstrators in severe danger. The Iranian regime is feverishly attempting to label the demonstrators as western agitators backed by the United States – Iranian state television even used a clip from FOX News in an effort to make this point. Therefore the calls from Pence, Cantor, and McCain are not only just unhelpful, but they are a total gift to Ahmadinejad. Furthermore, conservatives seem oblivious to their own record of failure to promote democracy under the Bush administration, as democracy failed to advance and even receded in much of the world. Aggressive sounding talk, threats of force, and an over emphasis on the mere holding of elections served only to strengthen hardliners and undermine the United States.

Iranians, Iranian Americans, journalists, and Iranian national security experts all agree that the last thing Iranian demonstrators need is U.S. interference.  There is an overwhelming consensus among journalists following Iran, experts on Iran, and Iranians themselves that U.S. interference in the current turmoil would strengthen hardliners, and put demonstrators in harm’s way:

  • Former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nick Burns: "President Ahmadinejad would like nothing better than to see aggressive statements, a series of statements, from the United States which try to put the US at the center of this.” [Former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nick Burns, 6/16/09]
  • National Iranian American Council President and Iran Expert Trita Parsi: “I think it’s quite reckless to turn this into a political football here in the United States. In reality, this can have severe repercussions on the streets of Tehran, if the protests are being casted as being orchestrated from the United States.” [Trita Parsi, 6/16/09]
  • Iran Expert and Former NSC Official Gary Sick: “Anything we do or say is going to be interpreted in Iran as interference in their domestic affairs and it will tarnish anyone who is in anyway seen as being supported by the United States.” [Gary Sick, 6/15/09]
  • Carnegie Endowment Iran Expert Karim Sadjadpour: “[W]e don't want to denounce these elections and insert ourselves into that political process which is playing out in Tehran. Historically, we have unwittingly hurt those whom we've tried to help in the past.” [Carnegie Endowment Iran Expert Karim Sadjadpour, 6/15/09]
  • Spokesman for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran Hadi Ghaemi:  “It is better for the U.S. not to comment and make itself part of the equation… By supporting one faction versus another, the U.S. would not be helpful at all.” [Spokesman for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran Hadi Ghaemi, 6/15/09]
  • Iranian Expatriate via Andrew Sullivan: “I'm an Iranian living in Canada. A few hours ago I talked to my brother who is a student at Sharif University, he was at the big rally yesterday and they were only feet away from Karoubi when they marched from the university entrance to Azadi square. He asked what had Obama had said and I started reading the transcript. When I got to ‘the United States can be a handy political football, or discussions with the United States [can be]’ my brother sighed and said thank God this guy gets it.” [Iranian expatriate reported by Andrew Sullivan, 6/16/09]
  • Washington Independent Reporter Spencer Ackerman: “American rhetorical support will immediately become a cudgel in the hands of Ahmadinejad.” [Spencer Ackerman, Washington Independent, 6/15/09]

Nevertheless, conservatives endanger protestors in Iran in order to advance narrow political objectives.  Despite pleas from Iranians and insistence from experts, conservatives latched on to protests in Iran as a means of attacking the administration, putting both the protests and U.S. interests in jeopardy.  Seizing on the instability in Iran as a means to score political points, Congressman Mike Pence (R – IN) introduced a resolution supporting Iranian dissidents, which read: “While the President may be ‘troubled by the violence,’ he has yet to express the unqualified support of the American people for those who are courageously risking their lives for free elections and democracy in Iran. If the President of the United States will not express our nation's solidarity with the dissidents in the streets of Tehran, then Congress must.” Pence’s resolution received the backing of conservative leadership, as second-ranking minority Member Eric Cantor (R – VA) issued a statement saying “The Administration’s silence in the face of Iran’s brutal suppression of democratic rights represents a step backwards for homegrown democracy in the Mideast. President Obama must take a strong public position in the face of violence and human rights abuses.”  Cantor and Pence’s conservative colleagues in the Senate echoed these extreme positions.  Long-time foreign policy hawk and occasional conservative ally Joe Lieberman (I – CT) proclaimed: “We as Americans have a responsibility to stand in solidarity with people when they are denied their rights by repressive regimes. When elections are stolen, our government should protest. When peaceful demonstrators are beaten and silenced, we have a duty to raise our voices on their behalf. We must tell the Iranian people that we are on their side.”  And, as the Politico reports this morning, Sen. John McCain (R – AZ) demanded on NBC that “that the United States should make clear that it backs anti-Mahmoud Ahmadinejad demonstrators in their battle against ‘an oppressive, repressive regime.’”  [Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN), 6/16/09. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA), 6/15/09. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), 6/14/09. Politico, 6/17/09]

Conservatives’ approach – which is based on dangerous ideology and ignorance of the situation in Iran – would endanger demonstrators and undermine broader U.S. objectives. Commentator Joe Klein remarked that the comments by McCain and his conservative colleagues are consistent with their “dangerous habit of making broad, extreme statements based on ideology rather than detailed knowledge of the situation in Iran and elsewhere.”  Even right-wing commentator Pat Buchanan condemned the approach taken by congressional conservatives, saying: “When your adversary is making a fool of himself, get out of the way... U.S. fulminations will change nothing in Tehran. But they would enable the regime to divert attention to U.S. meddling in Iran’s affairs and portray the candidate robbed in this election, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, as a poodle of the Americans.” Nico Pitney of the Huffington Post reported Iranian national television playing clips of FOX News to show that foreign press was trying to divide the Iranian people in order to take advantage of a weakened Iran. Trita Parsi explains their approach is not based on any familiarity with the situation in Iran: “They’re [conservatives] coming out and saying that we should side with the opposition, with Moussavi. I’m really curious to know if they’ve been in contact with Moussavi, and asked him if he thinks that’s a good idea. That’s the test that we’ve failed to pass in the past, in the sense that we’ve made up our mind on what they should want, and then we act. And then, even when it doesn’t work out the way that we hoped for, we think that it’s their fault, that they did understanding, genuinely, how positive our intentions were. We can’t do it this way.” [Joe Klein, 6/16/09. Pat Buchanan, 6/16/09. Huffington Post, 6/16/09. Trita Parsi, 6/16/09]

Conservatives claim Obama and progressives don’t care about democracy promotion, but after Bush’s eight years of failure they have no legs to stand on.  Robert Kagan wrote in the Washington Post today that, “[t]he turmoil in Iran since last week's election has confused the foreign policy debate here in the United States in interesting ways. Supporters of President Obama, who until very recently had railed against the Bush administration's ‘freedom agenda’ and who insisted on a new ‘realism,’ have suddenly found themselves rooting for freedom and democracy in Iran… His [Obama’s] strategy toward Iran places him objectively on the side of the government's efforts to return to normalcy as quickly as possible, not in league with the opposition's efforts to prolong the crisis.” Contrary to the claims of Kagan, progressives railed against Bush’s “freedom agenda” not because they oppose the promotion of democracy, but because Bush’s efforts both totally failed and were pursued in ways that undermined democracy and hurt America’s national interests. The invasion of Iraq is the most clear example of neoconservatives efforts to promote democracy through the barrel of a gun. Yet it was the Bush administration, by giving only insubstantial and inconsistent support for democracy promotion that damaged democracy promotion efforts abroad. When the Bush administration was not invading countries to promote “freedom,” its democracy promotion efforts were almost solely based on calling for elections.  In the Middle East, from Iraq to Lebanon to the Palestinian territories, the Bush administration pushed elections, while ignoring the need to support liberal institutions, individual rights, rule of law, and the role of civil society that are necessary to build long-lasting democracy. Meanwhile, President Bush kept silent on the various illiberal policies of nations like Russia and Pakistan, where the president preferred a policy based on personal relationships with the dictatorial leaders. [Robert Kagan, 6/17/09. Washington Post, 8/20/08. Washington Post, 8/27/08]

What We’re Reading

Iran accused international journalists of supporting ‘hooligans’, and said it will take legal action against websites that incite riots. Meanwhile, Iranian opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi issued a direct challenge to the country’s supreme leader and called for a mass rally to protest disputed election results and violence against his supporters. In the U.S., the State Department asked Twitter to delay scheduled maintenance that would have cut off service to Iranians using the site

U.N. Atomic Energy Chief Mohamed El Baradei said it was his ‘gut feeling’ that Iran’s government wants bomb technology

Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak warned North Korea to stop threatening the region and vowed to enforce new U.N. sanctions ordered after North Korea’s May 25 nuclear test. A U.S. official estimated that it might only be three years before the U.S. is in North Korean missile range

Taliban extremists in Pakistan murdered cleric Sarfraz Naeemi, signifying that the scope of the insurgents’ war against the “infidel state” has widened to include fellow Sunni clerics who defy them. Meanwhile, Pakistan and the E.U. are holding their first ever summit, which officials say will be dominated by the fight against terrorism

Afghanistan’s nationwide election campaign is off to a disorganized start. The ballot lists 41 presidential candidates   

Up to 1,000 Bermudan protestors demanded that Bermuda’s premier resign, saying his failure to consult with other high-ranking officials before agreeing to accept four former Guantanamo Bay detainees showed disrespect

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter called on Israel to halt ‘abuse’ in Gaza

The Mexican navy seized more than a ton of cocaine found hidden inside frozen shark carcasses. Officials say cartels are coming up with increasingly creative ways of smuggling drugs into the U.S.

Mutinous army soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo fired on a U.N. base

Commentary of the Day

Thomas Friedman is fascinated by what he calls the transformation of Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, blogs and texts into “virtual mosques” in Iran and Lebanon.

Ramin Jahanbegloo argues that Iran’s election has opened a generational fissure

Philip Bowring discusses China’s need to balance its nationalist instincts and its desire to be seen as a fair global player