Obama, Trump responses to unrest in Iran reveal sharp differences
The popular unrest wracking Iran has drawn comparisons with the Green Revolution in 2009, the last time that Iran’s rulers faced such widespread public opposition. Because both 2009 and 2017 happened to be the first years of new US presidencies, the respective responses to events in Iran by the Obama and Trump administrations have also come under scrutiny.
As learned from the “Arab spring,” seemingly spontaneous popular revolts do not have simple explanations and usually are the result of long-simmering grievances triggered by a spark. In 2009, Iranians took to the streets following national elections in which voting irregularities were rampant.
Underlying that immediate cause, however, was anger by mostly younger Iranians that the mullahs’ favoured candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had defeated — perhaps by fraud — the pro-reform Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who had promised more freedoms and less revolutionary fervour.
While the uprising that began in late 2017 lacks a clear trigger — although some analysts simplistically blame it on “inflation” — it shares with that of 2009 a deep frustration with the Iranian ruling class. The fact that Iran is in the second term of a more reform-oriented president, Hassan Rohani, further proves the deeper roots of unrest.
Neither of the newly elected US administrations — that of President Barack Obama in 2009 and of President Donald Trump today — was prepared for the events in Iran. (No US intelligence agency in December 2010 predicted the “Arab spring” either, so one of the lessons here may be the limits of intelligence gathering.) The responses of the two US presidents could not be more different, however.
Obama reacted cautiously, even timidly, and bent over backward to not be seen as publicly supporting the demonstrators. The Trump administration — mostly via the tweeted messages of the president — relished this opportunity to stick it to Tehran.
One reason for the radical difference in tone from Washington has to do with the personal characteristics of the presidents. Obama was, by nature, cautious and deliberative; Trump is, by nature, reckless and impulsive. Obama liked to operate quietly and through back channels; Trump adores the spotlight.
Obama and his advisers said that, if Washington openly backed the protesters, the effect could be to bolster the regime. After 30 years of US-Iranian hostility and demonisation, they understood that anti-regime Iranians were not necessarily pro-American. Obama knew he had little leverage over Tehran, the United States having already imposed extensive sanctions on Iran.
Obama was by no means silent. On June 15, 2009, he said of the Iranian protesters: “For those people who put so much hope and energy and optimism into the political process, I would say to them the world is watching and inspired by their participation [in demonstrations].”
On January 1, Trump fired off a tweet saying: “The people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime. All of the money that President Obama so foolishly gave them went into terrorism and into their pockets. The people have little food, big inflation and no human rights. The US is watching!”
Substantively, Trump’s message is not that much different from Obama’s (other than Trump’s dig at his predecessor). Both presidents warned that they were “watching” and clearly sympathised with the protesters. Later January 1, however, US Vice-President Mike Pence tweeted: “The United States of America will not repeat the shameful mistake of our past when others stood by and ignored the heroic resistance of the Iranian people… We must not and we will not let them down.”
Pence’s tweet suggested that US action was imminent, although, like Obama, Trump has little leverage over Tehran, with one huge exception: On January 13, he will once again have the option of pulling the United States out of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. Although Iran’s domestic politics were not an element of Iranian compliance with the agreement, the unrest — and the regime’s violent response to it — could give Trump the excuse he has wanted to scrap it.
The different responses are not just questions of style and tone. There is a more significant factor: Already in 2009 Obama was trying to develop a policy of long-term reconciliation with Tehran; none of his advisers advocated for regime change in Tehran, which had been the goal of many in the George W. Bush administration. Trump, however, has made the Iranian regime America’s number one global enemy and many of his advisers have put regime change — if not regime destruction — in the cross hairs of US policy.
Iran’s political evolution will be determined by Iranians and, even if the regime were to collapse, it is unlikely that a successor government would align itself with Trump’s America. In the meantime, Trump will milk the situation for all he can, which may mean the end of the nuclear agreement.