In pursuit of a nuclear deal, Obama shunned Iran’s democracy movement

green-movement

The Wall Street Journal reports: Iranian opposition leaders secretly reached out to the White House in the summer of 2009 to gauge Mr. Obama’s support for their “green revolution,” which drew millions of people to protest the allegedly fraudulent re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The demonstrations caught the White House off guard, said current and former U.S. officials who worked on Iran in the Obama administration.

Some U.S. officials pressed Mr. Obama to publicly back the fledgling Green Movement, arguing in Oval Office meetings that it marked the most important democratic opening since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Mr. Obama wasn’t convinced. “‘Let’s give it a few days,’ was the answer,” said a senior U.S. official present at some of the White House meetings. “It was made clear: ‘We should monitor, but do nothing.’ ”

The president was invested heavily in developing a secret diplomatic outreach to Mr. Khamenei that year, sending two letters to the supreme leader in the months before the disputed election of Mr. Ahmadinejad, said current and former U.S. officials.

Obama administration officials at the time were working behind the scenes with the Sultan of Oman to open a channel to Tehran. The potential for talks with Iran — and with Mr. Khamenei as the ultimate arbiter of any nuclear agreement — influenced Mr. Obama’s thinking, current and former U.S. officials said.

U.S. officials said the White House also was getting conflicting messages from Green Movement leaders. Some wanted Mr. Obama to publicly warn Mr. Khamenei against using force. Others said such a declaration would give Iran’s supreme leader an excuse to paint the opposition as American lackeys.

Mr. Obama and his advisers decided to maintain silence in the early days of the 2009 uprising. The Central Intelligence Agency was ordered away from any covert work to support the Green Movement either inside Iran or overseas, said current and former U.S. officials involved in the discussions.

“If you were working on the nuclear deal, you were saying, ‘Don’t do too much,’ ” said Michael McFaul, who served as a senior National Security Council official at the White House before becoming ambassador to Russia in 2012.

After a week of demonstrations, Iran’s security forces went on to kill as many as 150 people and jail thousands of others over the following months, according to opposition and human rights groups. Mr. Khamenei accused the U.S. of instigating the uprising. Iran denied killing protesters.

Some of Mr. Obama’s closest advisers, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said in retrospect the U.S. should have backed the Green Movement. “If we could do it again, I would give different counsel,” said Dennis Ross, Mr. Obama’s top Mideast adviser during his first term. At the time, he said, he argued against embracing the protests.

A senior U.S. official said this week that the Obama administration argued against covert support for the Green Movement because it risked undermining its credibility domestically, not out of fear of Mr. Khamenei’s reaction. “We did not want to tar the movement,” the official said. [Continue reading…]

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