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John Hannah, former National Security Advisor to President Vice-President Dick Cheney has a piece on FP’s The Argument blog, claiming that President Obama missed an opportunity to catalyze regime change in Iran during the recent protests and, thus, dismantle Iran’s nuclear program.

The claim that this was a missed opportunity to overthrow the Ayatollahs rests on a myth about the nature of the Iranian protests. It imposes a reductive interpretation on Iranian society and politics–of one divided between secular liberals and mullahs–as neoconservatives are so keen to do.

These protesters were not secular liberals calling for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. They were chanting “Allahu Akbar,” brandishing green–Islamic–arm bands and rallying around Mousavi, one of the leaders of the 1979 revolution. Rather, they were dismayed Iranians, who believed that Ayatollah Khameini and Mahmoud Ahmedinijad had betrayed the principles of the Islamic Revolution by rigging the election.

Any significant or public efforts to support regime change in Iran would not have led to a mass uprising; they would have instead ended up intensifying the crackdown on the protesters, and convinced many Iranians to rally around the republic. Moreover, should these protesters have even tried to overthrow the regime, the majority of the Iranian people (i.e not in Tehran and Shiraz) would have stood against them–notwithstanding the brutal Basij militias.

Hannah also argues that had regime change succeeded, then Iran would have abandoned its nuclear program. Thus, in his eyes, President Obama failed to spur not only regime change but nuclear disarmament.

Again, the belief that the subsequent Iranian regime would dismantle the nuclear enrichment program so easily is built on another fallacy about Iranian and regional politics. The conventional neoconservative refrain is that Iran’s theocratic leaders are inherently irrational and thus their conception of national security is too. But they forget to mention that support for Iran’s nuclear weapon’s program finds its roots amongst most Iranians and that the Shah of Iran–an American ally–also sought the nuclear bomb. In a deeply unstable region, surrounded by hostile Arab states and nuclear powers like Israel, India and Pakistan, it seems sensible to consider and to posses an arsenal.

But to consider the mullahs in Iran rational or the protesters in Iran pro-Islamic Republic would shatter the neoconservative Manichean fantasy that the world is divided into good and evil, into Western democracy and Islamofascism.

The Bush administration’s Middle East policy and the reductive assumptions upon which it was constructed belong better on movie screens than in policy journals. They make for good yarns but horrible ideas through which to conduct foreign affairs. No, Iran was not on the verge of a secular, democratic revolution. It was a society in shambles and a government deeply discredited, but not an ideology on the wane nor a regime at its end.

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