The Biden administration, unlike the administration of President Barack Obama, has decided to take an activist approach to aiding anti-government protests in Iran in response to the death of a young woman (this time for not wearing the required headscarf properly). Not only did President Joe Biden publicly side with the protesters in a speech before the United Nations, but the U.S. government may also help smuggle Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite system into Iran so that the protesters can communicate. Musk has said that his system is now activated in Iran to try to nullify the Iranian government's attempts to shut down the internet and communication services. This policy, which warms the heart of the interventionists on the American Left and Right, is justified with high-flying rhetoric that the United States supports freedom fighters worldwide, but it is really an attempt to help overthrow a repressive, theocratic government that is Israel’s major foe.
In 2009, a year of widespread anti-government protests in Iran in response to a rigged election, Obama took a more prudent and restrained approach by not publicly supporting the protesters. As a result, the Iranian government could not allege that the CIA had sparked the protests and thus discredit them in the eyes of many Iranians. This time, U.S. intelligence agencies could possibly even attempt to aid protesters by smuggling Starlink boxes into the repressive country.
At first blush, this new more activist policy might seem like a benign and cheap way to help overthrow the Iranian government, which has been virulently opposed to the United States since its inception in the late 1970s, largely due to America’s decades-long backing of the Shah’s brutal regime. Yet at the time, Obama administration officials realized that U.S. intrusion, or any appearance thereof, might be counterproductive to protesters’ efforts to win greater support in Iran.
Many of those Obama officials, including Biden National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, now inhabit the Biden administration and appear to regret their earlier restraint. Sullivan recently expressed contrition for the allegedly timid approach in 2009: “What we learned in the aftermath of that is that you can overthink these things, that the most important thing for the United States to do is to be firm and clear and principled in response to citizens of any country demanding their rights and dignity.” That might have been an acceptable policy if Biden had stopped with principled support for the protesters in his speech at the U.N. But running a not-so-covert operation to provide protesters with satellite Internet receivers to counter Iranian government attempts to shut it down would be interfering in a country’s internal affairs, a policy that is second nature to the U.S. government, which has attempted to meddle in other nations’ business as global policeman for more than three-quarters of a century.
Such intrusions to ostensibly correct the internal human rights abuses, even horrors, in unfriendly nations seem like a great move to the idealistic American public, but it is less welcome to the realist school of foreign policy. And usually, as in this case, the U.S. government has ulterior motives. Intervention in other countries’ affairs can bring blowback from groups—as seen in the heinous 9/11 attacks by an Osama bin Laden who was fed up with U.S. interventionism in the Middle East—or other nations, such as Russian meddling in recent U.S. elections in response to Vladimir Putin’s belief that Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, tried to intrude in Russian elections.
Thus, the realism school advises against many unwanted interventions within other nations’ borders for purposes of promoting democracy or for humanitarian purposes because dangerous wars, sometimes big ones, can be triggered by such interference, no matter how noble the purpose. Countries usually behave on the international stage according to the tenets of realism but justify their behavior in more lofty terms—for example, Putin’s justification for his brutal invasion was that he was “de-Nazifying” Ukraine. Politicians rarely justify their interventions with realistic justifications because they don’t appeal as well to the idealistic public. But the American public should be educated that the international system has quietly operated on the model of realism for millennia because it at least provides the best chance of peace in a violent and anarchic world.
Although Biden’s policy of active assistance to the Iranian protesters is not as aggressive as President Donald Trump’s assassination of Iran’s number two leader—the shoe of Iranian retaliation for this incident likely has not dropped yet—it might be as dangerous; countries usually get quite upset when other nations meddle in their internal affairs, especially when it is to overthrow their governments. Therefore, Iranian retaliation for both these U.S. interventions could come in a single, horrific package, most likely against a U.S. target or targets overseas.
Ivan Eland is a senior fellow with the Independent Institute and author of War and the Rogue Presidency.