The “kiss of death” hypothesis is intuitive—after all, the United States is held under nearly universal suspicion in the Middle East, even among its proponents. So why give regimes fodder for conspiracy theories and claims of “foreign hands” instigating protests? But these claims will come regardless of what the U.S. does or doesn’t do. Iranian officials, just as they did in 2009, wasted little time blaming the United States, as well as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and even ISIS. (The CIA’s Michael D’Andrea—interestingly one of the most senior Muslims in the U.S. government—also received an honorable mention.)
But it is time to question this intuition, especially since Arabs and Iranians will no doubt be protesting in the years and decades to come. Since when do authoritarian regimes need evidence to assert foreign meddling? After all, if there’s no evidence, it only makes foreign interference that much more nefarious—its non-existence becoming the very proof of its existence.
As for protesters themselves and how they might perceive American encouragement, Iran is something of a unique case. Despite (or, rather, because of) a virulently anti-American regime, Iranians are generally less anti-American than other populations in the Middle East. One thing Iranians, whatever their politics, will be aware of is American involvement in the 1953 coup against the country’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohamed Mossadegh—an instance, in other words, of undermining democracy, rather than supporting it.
Even in countries with notoriously high levels of anti-Americanism, such as Egypt, U.S. support, even if it’s primarily rhetorical, can provide a much-needed boost—the knowledge, however intangible, that someone, somewhere, is watching and that your cause will not be forgotten. I was living in Jordan during the first Arab spring, in 2004 and 2005, and I remember how President George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda,” as half-hearted as it turned out to be, contributed to a sense of cautious optimism among activists across the region. The Egyptian publisher Hisham Kassem might have been exaggerating when he said that “eighty percent of political freedom in this country is the result of U.S. pressure,” but even if it was 20 percent, it mattered. And it’s little accident that Egypt in 2005 saw what was, until then, one of its largest mass mobilizations in decades.
And it wasn’t just liberals or secular activists. The members and leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood I was interviewing at the time would often (sometimes with a hint of irony) offer thanks to President Bush, privately but also publicly. They may have hated Bush on other things like the Iraq War or Israel, as they were keen to note, but there was generally a grudging respect for his willingness to elevate democratic reform in U.S. policy. As the Jordanian Islamist writer Jihad Abu Eis told me: “It’s the right of Islamists to take advantage of American pressure on reform.”