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Team Biden does 180 on Iran protests as Obama admits 'mistake' not to back 2009 demonstrations

Critics see progress but want more concrete action as the Biden administration says it's prioritizing anti-government protests over a nuclear deal following Obama expressing solidarity with Iranian demonstrators.

Published: October 15, 2022 3:42pm

Updated: October 16, 2022 11:09pm

In a striking reversal, the Biden administration signaled for the first time it's not pushing to reach a nuclear deal with Iran, instead expressing support for the Iranian people demonstrating against their theocratic government after receiving criticism for not strongly backing the protesters.

The apparent 180 came as former President Barack Obama expressed solidarity with the demonstrators and admitted he made a "mistake" by not supporting anti-government protests when he was in office — a decision that many observers argue was motivated by a desire to reach a deal on Iran's nuclear program.

Biden said Friday he was "stunned" by the nationwide protests in Iran, which erupted last month when a young woman died in the custody of Iran's so-called morality police. She was allegedly detained for wearing a mandatory Islamic head covering in an "improper" way.

"Iran has to end the violence against its own citizens simply exercising their fundamental rights," Biden said while visiting Irvine Valley Community College in California for an unrelated event. "I want you to know that we stand with the citizens, the brave women of Iran."

Chants demanding the overthrow of Iran's Islamist regime have been commonplace.

"They're calling for regime change," Ali Safavi of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a coalition of Iranian opposition groups, told the "Just the News, No Noise" television show on Friday. "The most prevalent chants in virtually every city in Iran that has [seen] a protest are 'Death to the dictator' and [Iranian Supreme Leader Ali] 'Khamenei must go.'" 

The Iranian regime has violently cracked down on the protests in a so-far-unsuccessful attempt to quell the unrest.

Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan have all met with Iranian activists over the last few days and expressed support for the anti-government protests.

Perhaps most revealing, State Department spokesman Ned Price on Wednesday said the administration's current priority is supporting the protesters rather than pursuing stalled nuclear talks with Iran.

Price was responding to a reporter who asked if the administration is "still interested" in pursuing the nuclear talks.

"That's not our focus right now," said Price. "I think it is very clear, the Iranians have made very clear that this is not a deal that they have been prepared to make. And so right now our focus ... is on the remarkable bravery and courage that the Iranian people are exhibiting through their peaceful demonstrations, through their exercise of their universal right to freedom of assembly and to freedom of expression. And our focus right now is on shining a spotlight on what they're doing and supporting them in the ways we can."

Since the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden and his top advisers have repeatedly said one of their top priorities is reviving the 2015 nuclear deal, which placed temporary curbs on Iran's nuclear program in exchange for lifting billions of dollars' worth of sanctions on Iran.

Former President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the accord in 2018.

Price's comments came one day after Barack and Michelle Obama released a statement expressing solidarity with the Iranian protesters.

"The rights they seek are universal: equality, the ability to make their own choices about how they look and dress and express their identities, and the freedom to do so without facing harassment, intimidation, and violence," the Obamas said in their statement.

Then on Friday, Barack Obama appeared on the "Pod Save America" podcast and admitted he made a "mistake" by not supporting a previous eruption of anti-government protests in Iran in 2009 when he was president.

Obama recalled there was a "big debate" inside the White House about whether he should publicly back the demonstrations, explaining many in his administration thought his support would undermine the "street cred" of the protesters, who the regime accused of being tools of the West.

"In retrospect, I think that was a mistake," Obama continued. "Every time we see a flash, a glimmer of hope, of people longing for freedom, I think we have to point it out. We have to shine a spotlight on it. We have to express some solidarity about it."

In 2009, Iranians poured into the streets to protest the results of a presidential election that they claimed was rigged by the regime. As the protests grew, so too did the regime's crackdown, which ultimately crushed the unrest.

The Obama administration adopted a policy of remaining silent rather than supporting the protesters.

"If we actually want to empower the Iranian people, we have to understand how our words can be manipulated and used against us to strengthen the clerical establishment, distract Iranians from a failing economy, and rally a fiercely independent populace against outside interference," then-Sen. John Kerry, who went on to serve as Obama's secretary of state, wrote at the time. "If the street protests of the last days have taught us anything, it is that this is an Iranian moment, not an American one."

When Obama eventually spoke of the protests, he didn't say the election was stolen.

Many observers have argued a central motivation of the Obama administration's inaction was laying the groundwork for diplomatic engagement to strike what ultimately became the 2015 nuclear deal.

Former Wall Street Journal reporter Jay Solomon, for example, reported in his 2016 book "The Iran Wars" that Obama feared the demonstrations would sabotage his secret outreach to Iran, noting the president ordered the CIA to sever its contacts with the protesters.

"The agency has contingency plans for supporting democratic uprisings anywhere in the world," Solomon wrote. "This includes providing dissidents with communications, money, and in extreme cases even arms. But in this case the White House ordered it to stand down."

Biden himself seemed to confirm hope for a nuclear deal factored into the administration's thinking, saying at the time that the unrest wouldn't cause the U.S. to abandon its policy.

"The decision has been made to talk," then-Vice President Biden said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "Our interests are the same before the election as after the election, and that is we want them to cease and desist from seeking a nuclear weapon and having one in its possession and, secondly, to stop supporting terror."

In late 2017, when Trump was in office, another round of anti-government demonstrations broke out across Iran. The Trump administration publicly backed the protesters, to the chagrin of Obama administration alumni.

"How can Trump help Iran's protesters? Be quiet" was the headline of an op-ed written by Philip Gordon, who served as White House coordinator for the Middle East during the Obama administration.

Blinken retweeted the article, writing, "Good advice from Phil Gordon."

By all appearances, what's happening today is a 180 for both Biden and Obama.

"The Biden administration from the president on down to Secretary Blinken and his officers have realized that issuing support for Iran's protesters and revolutionaries helps support — not hinder — their cause," Gabriel Noronha, a former special adviser for Iran in the State Department, told Just the News. "That's a huge turn from their public stances only a few years ago when they criticized then-President Trump for doing the same. Former President Obama on the other hand still waited over three weeks to issue any statement and didn't even manage to criticize the regime — he still holds to the failed belief that silent solidarity has any merit."

Critics have slammed Biden in recent weeks for doing little to back the current protests beyond a couple brief statements of support. Experts recently told Just the News they had found the administration's response "weak," "baffling," and counterproductive.

Since then, many analysts have indicated they're encouraged by additional steps but still want more tangible action.

Jason Brodsky, policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran, tweeted that while Biden should deliver more extensive criticism of the regime, his latest remarks are "important" and "progress."

"However concrete action is needed," he continued. "At the very least the Biden administration should lead the charge for the establishment of a U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Iran. The fact that one was not in existence even before the recent protests given four decades of abuses is scandalous."

The administration has imposed limited sanctions on Iran in response to the unrest and taken steps to increase the Iranian people's internet access, which the regime has tried to cut off. But experts and activists are calling for more, such as taking these human rights matters to the U.N. and publicly stating at the highest levels of government that the U.S. recognizes the rights of Iranian citizens to defend themselves by any means.

Khamenei has blamed the U.S. and Israel for the protests without evidence, arguing they seek to undermine the regime. He also pointed a finger at "traitorous Iranians abroad," referring to the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK), an exiled Iranian opposition group.

"The Iranian regime will always blame foreign forces for fomenting dissent when the true cause is their mismanagement, corruption, and brutal oppression of their people," said Noronha.