John Hannah: Bush Deserves More Credit on Iran

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Hannah served on former Vice President Dick Cheney's national security staff from 2001-2009.]

Defying their regime once more, Iranians have renewed their protests in the streets of Tehran. Last month, when the protests began, the New York Times ran a story hinting that Iran's demonstrators may have been inspired by an "Obama factor." The article suggested that President Barack Obama's diplomatic outreach, unlike his predecessor's approach, emboldened Iranians to rise up against their regime, demanding it repair relations with America and the world.

The Times reporter drew a stark contrast between the presidency of George W. Bush and that of Mr. Obama. According to the article, "Iran's regime was able to coalesce support by uniting the country against a common enemy: President Bush, who called Iran a pillar of the 'axis of evil.'" Alarmed by Mr. Bush's hostility, Iranians "swallowed their criticism of [their] hard-line regime and united against the common enemy."

Setting aside the article's claims about an "Obama effect," its characterization of the Bush years is unfair and misleading. As someone who served in Mr. Bush's White House, I can attest that the administration's Iran policy was far from perfect. The Islamic Republic's ongoing nuclear program is proof enough of the policy's serious shortcomings. Yet, in light of recent events, it seems apparent that Mr. Bush got some important things concerning Iran right.

First, some facts. Mr. Bush delivered his infamous "axis of evil" speech in January 2002. On several occasions thereafter he followed up with statements harshly attacking the legitimacy of the Iranian regime. He repeatedly distinguished between the people of Iran and their "unelected rulers."

Did Mr. Bush's confrontational posture really lead Iranians to rally behind the regime? Hardly. In November 2002 and again in June 2003, student-led protests rocked Tehran and other Iranian cities, as the New York Times itself acknowledged at the time. In both cases, demonstrators' demands included sweeping democratic reforms. During the 2002 clashes (which dragged on for weeks), the Times reported that protesters had been "boldly critical of the government, including the supreme religious leader [Ali Khamenei], who is normally beyond criticism." The protestors called for the "secularization of the religious system" -- an end to clerical rule.

Similarly, in June 2003, protesters rapidly focused on the need for fundamental change. A manifesto signed by hundreds of intellectuals and clerics declared that Ayatollah Khamenei's claims to absolute power were "a clear heresy towards God and a clear affront to human dignity." The BBC reported that chants of "Death to Khamenei" were heard at the rallies. More than 4,000 people were arrested before the demonstrations were suppressed.

The reality is that large-scale anti-regime protests erupted on multiple occasions throughout Mr. Bush's first term -- the very moment when his Iran policy was most aggressive. The suggestion that Iranians "swallowed their criticism" of the Islamic regime in an anti-American response to Mr. Bush's tough stance is simply not borne out by the facts...

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