Should the U.S. support protesters in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon?

Our abandonment of the Iranian people in the Green Revolution of 2009 when hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest the repressive theocracy was a stain on our value-based foreign policy.

Demonstrators clash with members of Iraqi security forces during the ongoing anti-government protests near the Governorate building of Basra, Iraq November 8, 2019 (photo credit: ESSAM AL-SUDANI/ REUTERS)
Demonstrators clash with members of Iraqi security forces during the ongoing anti-government protests near the Governorate building of Basra, Iraq November 8, 2019
(photo credit: ESSAM AL-SUDANI/ REUTERS)
The year is 2009, and the Iranian people are taking to the streets by the hundreds of thousands, with some estimates in the millions, to express their outrage at the results of the fraudulent reelection of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
What should America do?
US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said that “The United States had to be very careful not to look like what was happening inside Iran was directed by... the United States… [or] we would discredit the movement.”
In 2011, at the beginning of the Arab Spring, Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, commenting on whether the US should weigh in, said that “protesters view the United States as the historical prop for Arab authoritarian regimes… But what the United States says affects its standing in the region.”
Those contradictory opinions are playing out again in regard to a new Arab and potentially Iranian Spring, where new rounds of protests in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon have challenged American foreign policy experts and Congress on the best way to proceed.
I saw this first-hand in meetings last week with foreign affairs experts from the White House, Senate, House and think-tanks, as well as with members of Congress, expressing a full range of opinions on how best to approach these difficult choices and advance American interests.
In 2009, the Obama administration choose to remain silent to the Iranian people’s aspirations in the hope that non-confrontation would curry favor with the supreme leader, laying the groundwork for rapprochement and an eventual nuclear deal.
Yet a short time after that, the Obama administration supported another popular uprising that led to the overthrow of longtime Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, who was an American ally, and had ensured the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. That American choice led to the rise of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in a fair and free election, until the people took to the streets a couple of years later, leading to the emergence of Egyptian strongman President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who took control of the country from the incompetent Muslim Brotherhood.
There is understandable concern that any vocal American support for popular protests against authoritarian anti-American Muslim regimes will feed into the narrative that these are US sponsored uprisings, undermining the credibility of the protesters’ legitimate grievances of corruption and economic issues, while giving ammunition to scapegoat America and undermine popular support.
But how many times do we have to hear the ayatollah say that protests, whether in Lebanon, Iran or Iraq, are instigated by the “enemies of Iran,” before we realize that not responding and not supporting protesters advances the rulers’ interests, empowering Iran and its proxies? There is nothing that can appease or placate the revolutionary ideology of Twelver Shi’ite believers in today’s Islamic Republic of Iran, and any Westerners who think otherwise are just deluding themselves.
THE COMMON THREAD in today’s Middle East protests is institutionalized corruption and economic disparity.
For the last two years, protests have flared throughout Iran in scores of cities and provinces. In January 2018, tens of thousands of Iranian protesters went into the streets to complain about the high costs of living, which have only intensified with the ever-growing Trump-imposed sanctions. Today, the Iranian people are protesting against the rise in gas prices, unable to understand how a nation with the second largest fossil fuel reserves in the world cannot even provide for its people’s needs.
The White House, to its credit, released a statement saying that, “The United States supports the Iranian people in their peaceful protests against the regime.” But what about publicly supporting the protesters in Lebanon where the Iranian-controlled American-designated terrorist Hezbollah holds sway both politically and militarily?
In Beirut, protests against government corruption and economic issues have brought hundreds of thousands into the streets of all religious sects – including Shi’ite protesters, who hold Hezbollah as the true power in Lebanon to blame for their grievances.
Hezbollah, for its part, has attacked protesters and, despite claims that it represents the poor, is doing everything it can to keep the corrupt government together so it can extract as much cash as possible for its own purposes. Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Sunni, wants a technocrat government, the last thing Hezbollah is interested in.
In Iraq, protests in the last year also have a large Iranian fingerprint, with Iranian-controlled Iraqi militias firing on protesters, even though the protesters are Arab Shi’ites.
Differentiating between the protests is important to fine-tune diplomatic and policy approaches, but they all share a common thread. Whether in Baghdad, Basra, Tehran or Beirut, that thread is tied to the grand Iranian plan through its Revolutionary Guard to control the region, threatening both Israel and the conservative Gulf states, and undermining American interests.
Since Iran is America’s number one adversary in the region undermining our security interests, we must not lose sight of the fact that popular uprisings are the best path to undermine and weaken Iran. Our silence in the face of people confronting our primary enemy is perceived as American weakness and abandonment, empowering the supreme leader and his Revolutionary Guard forces who control Hezbollah, and the Iranian controlled militias in Iraq.
So what should be our guide? History.
Our abandonment of the Iranian people in the Green Revolution of 2009, when hundreds of thousands of Iranians went into the streets to protest against the repressive theocracy, was a stain on our value-based foreign policy, and undermined our national security interests. Imagine, if it had succeeded in overthrowing or altering the regime, how much better our position could be today.
Supporting Middle East protesters who advance our interests against Iran, whether they are in Iran, Iraq or Lebanon, is the best path forward for American security interests in the region.
The writer is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the Senate, House and their foreign policy advisers, as well White House advisers. He is a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, and a contributor to The Hill, i24TV, JTA, Defense Post, JNS, The Forward and has appeared in RealClearWorld.