American Conservatives Are Contradicting Themselves on Iran

Where’s the habitual concern for unintended consequences?


On Wednesday in The Washington Post, Vice President Mike Pence contrasted his boss’s response to protests in Iran to President Obama’s response in 2009. Obama, he said, had “stayed silent” and “declined to stand with a proud people who sought to escape from under the heavy weight of a dictatorship.” But “under President Trump,” Pence crowed, “the United States is standing with them.”

This is a lie. Obama did not “stay silent.” He declared himself “appalled and outraged by the threats, beatings and imprisonments” of Iranian protesters. His administration also leaned on Twitter to ensure that Iranians could continue using it to organize their demonstrations. Obama did, however, temper his public comments, so as “to avoid the United States being the issue inside of Iran.” Given its history, Obama argued, if the U.S. were “seen as meddling,” it could harm the protesters’ cause.

Trump, by contrast, as is his nature, has put himself center stage. Three times since the beginning of the year, he’s tweeted his condemnation of the government in Tehran and his support for the people demonstrating against it. And overwhelmingly, conservatives—even those who dislike Trump—have declared his approach superior. Which is odd. Because it is conservatives, of all people, who should recognize its risks.

They should recognize its risks for two reasons. First, because American conservatives have spent the last half-century warning that virtuous rhetoric, and even virtuous intentions, do not necessarily produce virtuous results. Think about the right’s critique of government intervention to alleviate poverty. It’s built on the contention that while liberals may denounce poverty more passionately than do conservatives, their policies, even when well-intentioned, actually hurt the poor. Why? Because human behavior is too complex for government planners to understand, so when they try to make people zig, people often zag instead. Irving Kristol, among the most influential conservative intellectuals of the 20th century, declared in 1972 that, “I have observed over the years that the unanticipated consequences of social action are always more important, and usually less agreeable, than the intended consequences.”

Kristol’s journal, The Public Interest, focused mostly on domestic policy. But later in that decade, Jeane Kirkpatrick employed the same logic to critique Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy. Carter, she acknowledged in her famous essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” was genuinely “repelled by frankly non-democratic rulers.” But in his efforts to engineer a democratic transfer of power in Nicaragua and Iran, he ended up ushering in more brutal dictatorships instead. “History,” she lectured, “is a better guide than good intentions.”

None of this means Trump’s high-profile approach to the Iranian protests is necessarily wrong. Conservatives don’t believe that government actions always backfire. But it is odd to hear a conservative like Pence speak as if government intentions inherently bring about their desired result, that because Trump is embracing the protesters more loudly than Obama did, he’s necessarily doing a better job of advancing their cause.

It’s particularly odd because American policy toward Iran is exactly the kind of situation most likely to produce unintended consequences. If translating intentions into results is difficult domestically, it’s even harder overseas, especially in a country like Iran—from which the United States has been largely isolated since 1979—and whose domestic political dynamics American officials only dimly understand.

In fact, American policy in the Middle East since September 11 has been a festival of unintended consequences—measured mostly in innocent lives lost. In addition, America’s war in Afghanistan, which was expected to highlight American power, has helped China deepen its economic influence in Central Asia. America’s war in Iraq, which was expected to vanquish terrorism and weaken Iran, helped create ISIS and extend Tehran’s power. The “war on terror,” which was designed to prevent terrorism from the world’s ungoverned spaces, has instead ended up creating more: from Iraq to Libya to Mali.

One reason for these unintended consequences is nationalism. People in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have not behaved as the United States hoped they would, in part, because many Afghans, Iraqis, and Libyans—despite loathing their anti-American leaders—also deeply distrusted the United States. That’s likely also the case in Iran. Pence may believe, as he claimed in his op-ed, that the United States “has long stood with those who yearn for freedom.” But most Iranians don’t. In 1953, after all, the United States helped overthrow a democratically elected Iranian leader and then spent the next several decades propping up Iran’s repressive shah. The U.S. supported Saddam Hussein in a war in which he gassed Iranians. And it has still never apologized for accidentally downing an Iranian passenger jet in 1988, and killing 274 people. The United States is also largely responsible for the economic sanctions that have impoverished ordinary Iranians, and which, according to polls, they bitterly resent.

Trump has added to this ugly record by banning Iranians from entering the United States and repeatedly denigrating Muslims and Islam. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that according to a 2016 survey by the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies, 87 percent of Iranians held a negative view of the United States government. And that by a margin of three to one, according to a Zogby Research Services poll taken last summer, Iranians think Trump has made U.S.-Iranian relations worse.

Given these conditions, it’s quite plausible to fear—as Obama did—that heavy-handed American intervention could provoke a nationalist backlash that helps Iran’s regime perpetuate its repressive ways. Conservatives should understand this because they, more than liberals, grasp nationalism’s appeal. To the extent Trumpism means anything, it means the celebration and exploitation of American nationalism against a series of adversaries—immigrants, trade deals, the UN, disloyal minorities, globalist elites—who supposedly threaten the sovereignty and integrity of the United States. Trump celebrates that kind of nationalism in Europe too. Thus, his supporters, of all people, should understand that Iranians value their sovereignty too, and are unlikely to welcome American interference, no matter how badly they want their regime overthrown.

Why can’t Pence understand that? I suspect a lot of it has to do with Ronald Reagan. Reagan, according to conservative legend, denounced the USSR—calling it an evil empire and demanding that it tear down the Berlin Wall—and thus helped inspire the revolts that brought down the Soviet empire. Pence wants to do something similar in Iran. But it’s a poor analogy. Eastern European countries like Poland were suffering under Soviet domination, and had little history of being dominated by the United States. Thus, Reagan was able to help stoke a Polish nationalism that expressed itself largely against Moscow. Iranians, by contrast, are rising up against homegrown dictators who use the specter of American domination to justify their hold on power. Iranians are thus less like Poles in the 1980s than Nicaraguans in the 1980s, who distrusted Reagan’s denunciations of their repressive Sandinista government because of their long, ugly experience with American power.

It’s ironic that Pence, in his oped, called Iranians “proud.” It’s precisely because they are proud—because, like Americans, they desire both individual freedom and national self-determination—that they can reject Ayatollah Khamenei while also rejecting Donald Trump.