Obama Says His Response to 2009 Iran Protests ‘In Retrospect…Was a Mistake’

Patrick Goodenough | October 17, 2022 | 4:15am EDT
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President Obama holds a copy of the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement, at a House Democratic event in Baltimore, Maryland in January 2016. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images)
President Obama holds a copy of the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement, at a House Democratic event in Baltimore, Maryland in January 2016. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images)

(CNSNews.com) – As the world watches and reacts to anti-regime protests in Iran that entered a second month at the weekend, former President Barack Obama conceded that, in hindsight, decision-making in his White House on how to respond to an earlier protest movement was wrong.

In an interview on a podcast hosted by former Obama White House staffers, he recalled that in the internal debate on how to react to the 2009 “Green Movement” protests some argued that vocal support from the U.S. would undermine the protestors.

“You guys will recall there was a big debate inside the White House about whether I should publicly affirm what was going on with the Green Movement,” Obama told the “Pod Save America” hosts in the episode aired on Saturday. “Because a lot of the activists were being accused of being tools of the West and there was some thought that we were somehow gonna be undermining their street cred in Iran if I supported what they were doing.”

“And in retrospect, I think that was a mistake.”

Obama told the podcast hosts – former National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor, former advisor for strategy and communication Dan Pfeiffer, and former speechwriters Jon Favreau and Jon Lovett – that the U.S. should “shine a spotlight” and “express some solidarity” whenever it sees “a flash, a glimmer of hope, of people longing for freedom.”

Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama last week issued a statement – on International Day of the Girl on October 11 – voicing “solidarity with the courageous Iranian women and girls who have have inspired the world through their ongoing protests.”

“You are delivering a powerful message that injustice should not be tolerated.”

The protests were sparked by the Sept. 16 death in custody of a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, after she was arrested by “morality police” enforcing hijab rules. They quickly spread across the country, taking on a broader anti-regime tone, with young people, especially girls, playing a prominent role.

More than 230 people, including at least 32 children, are reported to have been killed in clashes with security forces.

That toll already exceeds the fatalities reported in the summer of 2009, when protests erupted after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was reported by officials to have won re-election by a landslide – a result which opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi said had been blatantly rigged.

Supporters of the opposition ‘Green Movement’ demonstrate in Tehran in June 2009 in protest of the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. (Photo by Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images)
Supporters of the opposition ‘Green Movement’ demonstrate in Tehran in June 2009 in protest of the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. (Photo by Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images)

One day after Mousavi supporters took to the streets to protest, then-Vice President Joe Biden told NBC News while there was “real doubts” about the announced results, the administration would “withhold comment until we have a, you know, a thorough review of the whole process and how they react in the aftermath.”

The U.S. government did not have “enough facts” to make a firm judgment about the veracity of the declared victory for Ahmadinejad, and “we have to accept that for the time being,” Biden said.

It took ten days before Obama condemned the regime crackdown explicitly, calling on Tehran “to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people.”

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney urged Obama to speak out – and when running for the White House three years later, criticized the president’s approach.

“When millions of Iranians took to the streets in June of 2009, when they demanded freedom from a cruel regime that threatens the world, when they cried out, ‘Are you with us, or are you with them?’ – the American president was silent,” Romney said in an Oct. 2012 speech.

(The criticism was not just partisan. The Council on Foreign Relations was among those describing Obama’s initial response to the upheaval as “muted.”)

‘Taking a bunch of other equities into account’

Shortly before the disputed election Obama had offered the regime a “new beginning” of engagement and improved cooperation. He was hoping to draw it into talks on nuclear and other issues, and the engagement led in time to the 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Some of the fire directed at Obama by JCPOA critics later sought to link his cautious initial approach to the 2009 protests with his desire to strike a nuclear accord, one of his administration’s biggest – and most contentious – foreign policy achievements.

In his podcast appearance, Obama, unprompted, implicitly defended the decision to pursue a nuclear deal despite the regime’s behavior.

Immediately after his comment about the need to express solidarity when the U.S. sees “people longing for freedom,” he continued: “That doesn’t mean, by the way, that the administration is – that a U.S. administration shouldn’t be taking a bunch of other equities into account.”

“A president has to, right? So I continue to believe that the Iran nuclear deal was a really important thing for us to do to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Had we not had that in place, I think Iran would’ve had a nuclear weapon by now.”

“Well, look how well it’s gone since we pulled out,” Vietor interjected, referring to President Trump’s decision to abandon the JCPOA in 2018.

“Exactly, right?” said Obama. “So you still have to make decisions, often very difficult about – are there places where you do business with a government that is repressive? And that’s the job of a president and an administration facing a complicated world.”

Biden is seeking to return to the deal, although the diplomatic process has largely stalled. He and senior administration officials have spoken out in support of the Iranian protestors.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday met with Iran-focused campaigners, the State Department said, seeking “their perspectives on what more the United States could do to support the people of Iran, particularly in light of the Iranian government’s state-sponsored violence against women and contempt for human rights.”

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