While the rest of us were celebrating, the Iranian people rang in the new year with a nearly weeklong series of nationwide anti-government protests against corruption and austerity. And they’ve found some unlikely allies in this effort: the same neoconservatives who have spent the past few decades demanding they meet a fiery death.
The prospect of Iranians from all walks of life — not just the academics and urban youth of Tehran, but residents of more conservative, rural regions — rising up in anger against the government is naturally frightening for the country’s leadership, leading a host of conservative leading lights in the US to suddenly perk up and start cheering their rebellion on. But aside from their sudden devotion to the Iranian people, what virtually all of these individuals have in common is the years they spent advocating that the same people they now regard as courageous, freedom-loving heroes to be either incinerated in a surprise blitz of US firepower, or be starved and sickened through crippling sanctions.
One need look no further than Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, who has spent the past week calling the Iranian people “our real allies,” quoting Thomas Jefferson in support of their uprising, urging Washington to back them, and retweeting Garry Kasparov as he advised the US to “support the people of Iran” because “the people will remember if you do.” Unfortunately for Kristol, people will also remember if you spend the entirety of a century urging that they be murdered, as National Iranian American Council President Trita Parsi demonstrated when he called out Kristol for his hypocrisy on MSNBC.
“With all due respect, Bill, you’ve been arguing to bomb Iran for so long that I don’t know if you’re really respecting the Iranian people,” he said.
Indeed, at least as early as May 2003 — when fresh plumes of smoke were still rising over Baghdad — Kristol used a Hamas-connected suicide bombing in Jerusalem and unconfirmed media reports that one of the men behind an attack on a Saudi compound was hiding in Iran to call for military intervention into the country. Besides maintaining this drumbeat of war through subsequent years, Kristol’s political group, the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI), ran ads throughout 2012 calling for war with Iran.
John Bolton, Bush’s former UN ambassador, has also joined the fray, praising Trump for “taking the side of the demonstrators.” As recently as 2015, Bolton wrote an op-ed titled, “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran,” and before that, called several times for either US or Israeli military force against Iran, coupled with an effort at regime change and sanctions “with pain.”
The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin has likewise urged Western countries to “focus on the Iranian people and what the United States and our European allies can do to advance their aspirations,” and to “rethink our attitude toward human rights.” This is the same Jennifer Rubin who years ago lamented in neoconservative outlet Commentary that “war is a horrid prospect, as is the potential for massive loss of life — but not as horrid as that of a nuclear-armed Iran.”
Max Boot has similarly spent the past few days retweeting articles and statements calling for US support for the Iranian protesters, only five years after deciding that “the most effective option [for preventing a nuclear-armed Iran] is to use force,” that “air strikes against Iran are justifiable,” and that “even a symbolic strike [on Iran] is worthwhile.” Boot was also an advisor to John McCain during his 2008 run, during which Boot bragged to the press that “John McCain won’t wait until after the fact” to use military force in retaliation for Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Speaking of McCain, let’s not let his recent statements in support of the “brave protesters” in Iran fighting oppression make us forget his history of virulently supporting military force against those same people. McCain not only infamously sang the words “bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann,” but supported widening sanctions against the country, and backed legislation that would have drawn the US into military conflict with Iran if and when Israel decided to attack it.
He’s not the only hypocritical elected official. Lindsey Graham, McCain’s frequent collaborator, praised Trump for being “on the side of the Iranian people,” despite having a virtually identical history as his hawkish partner when it comes to raining destruction on those same people. Likewise, Mitt Romney — soon to be running for office again — pronounced that he found it “profoundly moving to watch those seeking freedom in Iran,” reminding him of “the patriots who won our own freedom.” Stirring stuff, and markedly different to the Romney of 2012, who told AIPAC he would “not delay in imposing further crippling sanctions” and would “make sure Iran knows of the very real peril that awaits it if it becomes nuclear.”
Then there’s Ari Fleischer, Bush’s former press secretary, who declared that Trump “has done more to support the Iranian people than President Obama did in eight years” with statements of support for the protesters, and wished that “protests break out everywhere and lead to the collapse of a brutal, backward, dangerous theological dictatorship.”
Yet a mere ten years ago, Fleischer’s neocon group, Freedom’s Watch, launched a campaign to sell the American public on war with Iran, sponsoring a forum of so-called experts on “radical Islam” who made the case that Iran was a direct threat to US security, and conducting focus groups to figure out how best to win support for military action among voters. He also frequently called for the US to increase and impose “massive new sanctions” on the people he now calls “brave Iranians.”
What “Military Action” Means
There’s a tendency when one talks about “military action,” “bombing,” and even “war with Iran” for the proposal to sound somewhat misleading, even bloodless. After all, this simply implies war with the Iranian leadership — not the people themselves.
Of course, as numerous wars have amply demonstrated, that distinction doesn’t exist in the midst of war, when human rights abuses are regularly carried out by frustrated and traumatized soldiers, missiles and bombs indiscriminately hit civilian as much as military targets, and the resulting chaos and instability create a lawless environment where everyone’s lives are threatened. Just look at Iraq.
Many of these neocons would argue that they’re simply talking about “surgical” strikes that would target Iran’s nuclear targets and nothing else. But this doesn’t make sense in the context of Iran either. As military analyst Omar Lamrani told Vice last year, the country’s nuclear program is “so big and dispersed” that “it’s hard to imagine a full US strike that does not lead to significant conflict between Iran and the United States.” And as international relations scholar Stephen Zunes told the outlet, any attempt to kill nuclear scientists would involve a high civilian death toll “because a lot of these things are in urban areas.”
That’s not even to mention the fact that any strike on Iran would invite retaliation, which would itself trigger an escalation of force and involvement on the US side, broadening even “limited” strikes on the country. There’s no real form of military involvement that doesn’t end with many of the people the neocons are currently hailing as brave patriots dead in a roiling inferno.
As for sanctions, they’ve had a similarly catastrophic effect on ordinary Iranians, depriving them of lifesaving medical supplies, sending unemployment and poverty skyrocketing, and making basic food items scarce. If you thought the recession created hardship in the US, then imagine if it had been about four times worse, and you get an idea of the havoc the sanctions created for Iran’s “patriots.”
The Real Goal
We should always be suspicious when neocons claim to support the people of the countries they want to bomb. Their support is usually only in the service of their true goal: regime change.
The last time Washington hawks lined up to plead for US support for anti-government protesters opposing an oppressive despot, we got Libya — which featured many of the same cast of players as today.
“We need to increase our support so that the Libyan people can achieve the only satisfactory outcome to this mass protest for universal rights — the end of Gaddafi’s rule and the beginning of a peaceful and inclusive transition to democracy that will benefit all Libyans,” said McCain in 2011, only a few years after announcing that Libya’s relationship with the US had taken a “remarkable and positive turn in recent years,” and publicly bragging about hanging out with the despot — “an interesting meeting with an interesting man,” in his words.
Indeed, protecting the Libyan rebels was used as the chief justification at the time for Western intervention in the civil war, which soon turned into a regime-change mission. The resolution that supported Obama’s continued use of force in the country explicitly stated that the US “should continue to support the aspirations of the people of Libya for political reform and self-government,” and that its military goals were “to protect civilians.” Hillary Clinton, then the secretary of state, called herself a “leading voice for … a NATO civilian-protection mission,” and her staff celebrated giving the New York Times editorial team “ammo” for a piece urging NATO to “stand firmly with the rebels.” (Clinton, who recently expressed hope that the Iranian protesters are dealt with peacefully, once threatened to “totally obliterate” the country.)
The neocon adoration of the Iranian people would only last roughly as long as their voting habits remained in line with their own interests. Just look at the disdain such figures had for the democratically elected government of Egypt, before it was deposed in a coup. Rubin, for instance, called the Egyptian dictator, el-Sisi, “the worst of all worlds — except for the Muslim Brotherhood,” the Islamist and socially conservative group brought to power by the elections that followed the Egyptian revolution. For some perspective, el-Sisi began his tenure by detaining, torturing, and disappearing thousands of people, which the Brotherhood-led government, whatever its faults, decidedly did not do.
Just because a collection of neocons and hawks has hitched their wagon to the cause of the Iranian people doesn’t mean we shouldn’t support the protesters’ fight for freedom. We should give full-throated backing to any people’s efforts to throw off the oppression of a violent, authoritarian regime, though reasonable people will disagree over the form and extent of that backing.
But don’t let the neocons’ paeans to the protesters fool you. If the Iranian people ever got the chance to truly cast a ballot, as soon as they voted the wrong way, today’s brave patriots would become tomorrow’s enemies of the state.