Commentary Magazine

Give Bush Credit on Iran

Seven years ago, Reuel Marc Gerecht looked into the best crystal ball in all global strategy and wrote down what he saw in the pages of the Weekly Standard:

If the United States stays in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime, and ushers in some type of a federal, democratic system, the repercussions throughout the region could be transformative. Popular discontent in Iran tends to heat up when U.S. soldiers get close to the Islamic Republic. An American invasion could possibly provoke riots in Iran–simultaneous uprisings in major cities that would simply be beyond the scope of regime-loyal specialized riot-control units. The army or the Revolutionary Guard Corps would have to be pulled into service in large numbers, and that’s when things could get interesting. The clerical regime fears big street confrontations, afraid that it cannot rely on the loyalty of either the army or the Guard Corps.

And if an American invasion doesn’t provoke urban unrest, the creation of a democratic Iraq probably will. Iraq’s majority Shiite population, who will inevitably lead their country in a democratic state, will start to talk to their Shiite brethren over the Iran-Iraq border. The collective Iranian conversation about American-aided democracy in Iraq will be brutal for the mullahs (which is why the Bush administration should prepare itself for Iranian mischief in Iraq’s politics once Tehran determines that the Bush administration is indeed serious about ensuring a democratic triumph in Baghdad). The Bush administration should, of course, quickly and loudly support any demonstrators who hit the streets in Iran. America’s approval will not be the kiss of death for the brave dissidents who challenge the regime’s armed defenders. On the contrary, such psychological support could prove critical to those trying to show to the people that the die is now decisively cast against the regime.

More than a testament to Gerecht’s uncanny grasp of theocratic politics, the passage highlights the thoughtfulness of George W. Bush’s much maligned Iran policy.

Among Bush’s critics it has become accepted fact that “the big winner of the Iraq War is Iran.” There are several arguments to support this view: the invasion empowered the fanatical Shia of Iraq, who inspired their ideological brethren across the eastern border; difficulties in establishing order in Iraq hurt America’s image as a formidable military threat; the U.S., in turn, needed Tehran’s help in subduing Iraqi unrest; without Saddam to worry about, the mullahs were free to follow through on plans for regional hegemony. All these arguments could be supported by events that were actually unfolding in the region – once upon a time. Today, few of them hold water.

Elections in Iraq have placed power in the hands of moderate Shi’ites; the U.S. troop surge reversed the progress of chaos and violence in Iraq and demonstrated the effectiveness of American military power. While it is true Tehran has not been checked in its effort to achieve hegemony through nuclear weapons, that’s been the case since before the U.S. invasion, and international intelligence estimates indicate that, if anything, the Iranian nuclear program was briefly paused in the spring of 2003 as a result of the American invasion next door. But most important, we now know that through the liberation of Iraq Bush unfroze the region and set democratizing forces in motion throughout global Islam. The assemblage of brave democrats in the streets of Iran has been the most heartening confirmation of the rightness of the Bush doctrine so far.

For years, discussion of the Iraq War’s effects on Iran has been dominated by theories about the war’s impact on the mullahs. Ignored entirely were the potential consequences for Iran’s young, modern population. There was, it turns out, a magnificent if stealth reaction to Iraqi democracy among the vibrant youth of Iran. Because of the media blackout on this, it is with some surprise that we unearth the results of an out of print BBC World Service survey from late 2004: approximately 52% of Iranians polled favored George W. Bush in the then upcoming presidential elections, while 42% preferred John Kerry. This sentiment was echoed among Iranian Americans. A 2004 Amnesty International poll found the following:

While two-fifths of Arab Americans wanted the United States out of the [Middle East] region altogether only one-fifth (20%) of Iranians expressed this view.

Iranians were less suspicious of U.S. intentions in the Middle East than Arab or Pakistani Americans. Respondents were asked whether they believe U.S. military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq are part of the U.S. war against terrorism or whether they are a U.S. campaign against Islam and the Arab world. A wide majority (77%) of Iranian Americans said the actions are part of a war against terror; a small minority of Iranian Americans (8%) said they represent a campaign against Islam.

Finally, it is with a sense of sci-fi wonder that we process this lost tidbit from Thomas Friedman in a 2005 New York Times column:

Funnily enough, the one country on this side of the ocean that would have elected Mr. Bush is not in Europe, but the Middle East: it’s Iran, where many young people apparently hunger for Mr. Bush to remove their despotic leaders, the way he did in Iraq.

An Oxford student who had just returned from research in Iran told me that young Iranians were "loving anything their government hates," such as Mr. Bush, "and hating anything their government loves." Tehran is festooned in "Down With America" graffiti, the student said, but when he tried to take pictures of it, the Iranian students he was with urged him not to. They said it was just put there by their government and was not how most Iranians felt.

Iran, he said, is the ultimate "red state." Go figure.

The figuring is actually quite simple. George W. Bush worked long and hard in his effort to speak directly to the Iranian people. Contrary to Barack Obama’s assertions, the Bush administration was a dogged proponent of respectful outreach to the population of Iran. The difference between Bush’s and Obama’s approaches is that Bush never apologized for America and, more important, never flattered the tyrants who tormented average Iranians. Bush’s record here is impressive and demands a more thorough airing.  He set the tone in the fall of 2002, when he annouced, “As Iran’s people move towards a future defined by greater freedom, greater tolerance, they will have no better friend than the United States of America." Bush expanded on his theme:

Iranian students, journalists and Parliamentarians are still arrested, intimidated, and abused for advocating reform or criticizing the ruling regime. Independent publications are suppressed. And talented students and professionals, faced with the dual specter of too few jobs and too many restrictions on their freedom, continue to seek opportunities abroad rather than help build Iran’s future at home. Meanwhile, members of the ruling regime and their families continue to obstruct reform while reaping unfair benefits.

Words do mean something, but they are often insufficient. In December 2002, Radio Farda was launched. This was a U.S. funded Persian language radio station that directly targeted Iranians. In his first Radio Farda greeting to the people of Iran Bush explained that the U.S. would attempt to fill news and information gaps caused by the repressive regime in Tehran, and restated his premise from months earlier: "If Iran respects its international obligations and embraces freedom and tolerance, it will have no better friend than the United States of America."

Bush proved to be a not infrequent broadcaster. Over the years, he praised the courage of many Iranian political prisoners and congratulated Iranians such as Shirin Ebadi “on receiving the Nobel Peace Prize — a first for an Iranian, and for a Muslim woman. . . I strongly support the Iranian people’s aspirations for freedom, and their desire for democracy. The future of Iran must be decided by the people of Iran. Americans look forward to the day when a free Iran stands as an example of tolerance, prosperity, and democracy in the Middle East and around the world."

When Iran’s fraudulent 2002 elections occurred, Bush was unequivocal in his denunciation of the regime and his support for Iranians: “In the last two Iranian presidential elections and in nearly a dozen parliamentary and local elections, the vast majority of the Iranian people voted for political and economic reform. Yet their voices are not being listened to by the unelected people who are the real rulers of Iran.” Far from disrespecting Iran’s historical achievements, Bush noted Iran’s “rich heritage of learning and progress.”

Through the years Bush called upon Tehran to release several political prisoners, including the journalist Akbar Gandji in 2005 ("Mr. Gandji, please know that as you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you.")  

Considering the fanfare that accompanied Barack Obama’s Nowruz (Persian New Year) greeting to Iran earlier this year, one would be forgiven for thinking no American president had ever attempted such a thing before. But one would be wrong. In March 2008, Bush took to the airwaves of Radio Farda once again. “First of all, the United States of America wishes everybody a Happy New Year. . . My message to the young in Iran is that someday your society will be free. And it will be a blessed time for you. My message to the women of Iran is that the women of America share your deep desire for children to grow up in a hopeful society and to live in peace,” said the 43rd president of the United States. His Nowruz greeting included pointed criticism of the mullahs, praise for the Iranian citizenry and blunt offers of American friendship. The transcript should be read in its entirety and gives the lie to the assertion that Bush was a soft power ignoramus.

Bush’s Iran gambit was part of a larger push for democracy promotion for which unprecedented hundreds of millions of dollars were secured in an "Iran democracy fund.” Taken as a whole, it’s not hard to see how the Iraq invasion, the isolation of the mullahs, and the unstinting appeal to Iranian youth helped to foment the pro-democracy fervor now so clearly in evidence.

When policy is right, change is a matter of time. In February of this year, John Bolton wrote in the New York Times about the effects that Iraq’s upcoming elections might have in Iran, “[T]he elections could make a deep impression on the citizens of Iran and its vassal, Syria. Young, educated, sophisticated Iranians, dissatisfied with their country’s religious orthodoxy and economic failures since the 1979 revolution, will draw their own conclusions from Iraq’s peaceful democratic process.” And draw their own conclusions they did.

Yet we now see that the mullahs have successfully obstructed the will of the Iranian people. Why? How?

Back to Gerecht’s crystal ball: “America’s approval will not be the kiss of death for the brave dissidents who challenge the regime’s armed defenders. On the contrary, such psychological support could prove critical to those trying to show to the people that the die is now decisively cast against the regime.”  Let’s hope it’s not too late for the American president to stop flattering Iranian theocrats. It’s past time he gave full-throated support to that proud and impressive civilization to which he has only paid lip service so far.

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