In contrast to the warm adulation Bill Clinton has received lately for his tsunami relief work, conservative blogs are indignant at his remarks at the January World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. No, the future First Gentleman is not getting swept up in the controversy that ended Eason Jordan’s tenure at CNN. In what TKS’s Jim Geraghty deems “the next great blogswarm,” Clinton is being called to task for praising Iran’s elections as “progressive,” claiming American responsibility for the lion’s share of problems in Iran and Iraq, and saying he apologized to Iran for American involvement in the coup against Mossadegh in 1953. Aside from the obvious objections to such detachment from reality, Clinton’s remarks ought to remind Americans of his gross neglect of Iran’s growing threat.
First reported by Arab News last weekend, Charlie Rose asked Clinton at a Davos forum about the probability of the Shiites turning Iraq into an Iranian theocracy. Clinton replied with his pundit version of U.S.-Middle East relations. The full transcript is worth examining to understand the context and read for yourself just how forgetful Clinton is of his own legacy there (courtesy of Nexis and Little Green Footballs):
Yeah — the Shiites have been pretty smart about that. And if you look at the Iranian — Iran’s a whole different kettle of fish, but it’s a sad story that really began in the 1950s when the United States deposed Mr. Mossadegh, who was an elected parliamentary democrat, and brought the Shah back in [Rose says “CIA” in the background] and then he was overturned by the Ayatollah Khomeini, driving us into the arms of one Saddam Hussein. [The U.S. and Britain were interested in removing Mossadegh after he nationalized foreign oil companies in Iran and became an unstable element in a region where the West desperately needed allies.] Most of the terrible things Saddam Hussein did in the 1980s he did with the full, knowing support of the United States government, because he was in Iran, and Iran was what it was because we got rid of the parliamentary democracy back in the ’50s; at least, that is my belief.
I know it is not popular for an American ever to say anything like this, but I think it’s true [applause], and I apologized when President Khatami was elected. I publicly acknowledged that the United States had actively overthrown Mossadegh and I apologized for it, and I hope that we could have some rapprochement with Iran. I think basically the Europeans’ initiative to Iran to try to figure out a way to defuse the nuclear crisis is a good one.
I think President Bush has done, so far, the right thing by not taking the military option off the table, but not pushing it too much. I didn’t like the story that looked like the military option had been elevated above a diplomatic option. But Iran is the most perplexing problem … we face, for the following reasons: It is the only country in the world with two governments, and the only country in the world that has now had six elections since the first election of President Khatami. [It is] the only one with elections, including the United States, including Israel, including you name it, where the liberals, or the progressives, have won two-thirds to 70 percent of the vote in six elections: two for President; two for the parliament, the Majlis; two for the mayoralties.
In every single election, the guys I identify with got two-thirds to 70% of the vote. There is no other country in the world I can say that about, certainly not my own.
That Clinton would so legitimize Iranian elections is shocking in its own right. The Islamic Republic has never held free and open elections. That Clinton would identify with the so-called Iranian moderates (those whom the hardliners actually allow) is equally disturbing. Progressives in Iran translate not into Bill Clintons and Howard Deans in America, but Ward Churchills. For example, “moderate” President Mohammed Khatami is adamant that Iran will develop nuclear weapons: “We have declared that we will never accept an indefinite suspension, and we will defend our rights.” Fellow “moderate” and former Majlis speaker Mehdi Karrubi blamed the Zionists for September 11. Reformist Reza Khatami, brother of President Khatami, still justifies the 1979 embassy takeover as a reaction to “conspiracies against the revolution.” Recently, President Khatami told Tehran students eager for real democracy, “Don’t be tempted by those who were banished from the revolution and want to give us the gift of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy.'” Khatami’s moderation still oversees death by stoning. Clinton is casting his lot with those committed to the Iranian revolution and who hate “the Great Satan.”
Clinton’s claim that he apologized for the overthrow of Mossadegh is yet another example of his propensity to be anything to anyone. The first suggestion of a Clinton apology to Iran for American involvement was by the Iranians. On November 4, 1998, the 19th anniversary of the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran, a senior Iranian official told demonstrators burning the U.S. flag that a dialogue between the two countries would require the president’s apology for American “support of 70 years of dictatorship in Iran.” In March 2000, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright admitted American involvement in Mossadegh’s ouster and acknowledged Iranian anger over it and the subsequent repression by the Shah.
The Clinton administration never apologized, but its policy toward the terrorist-supporting regime was quite apologetic. Clinton’s Davos remarks were merely recycled from his presidential days. While Iran maintained its fervent hatred of the West and particularly the United States, Clinton explained it away at an April 12, 1999, White House dinner ironically titled “The Perils of Indifference: Lessons Learned From a Violent Century.” Feeling Iranian pain, he said:
Iran…has been the subject of quite a lot of abuse from various Western nations. And I think sometimes it’s quite important to tell people, look, you have a right to be angry at something my country or my culture or others that are generally allied with us today did to you 50 or 60 or 100 or 150 years ago…. So I think while we speak out against religious intolerance, we have to listen for possible ways we can give people the legitimacy of some of their fears, of some of their angers, or some of their historic grievances, and then say they rest on other grounds; now can we build a common future? I think that’s very important. Sometimes I think we in the United States… we hate to do that. But we’re going to have to if we want to have an ultimate accommodation.
Later that month, the Clinton administration eased sanctions against Iran and other terrorist nations. And a State Department report on terrorism-sponsoring states weakened criticism of Iran and welcomed relatively positive developments: “Tehran apparently conducted fewer anti-dissident assassinations abroad in 1998 than in 1997.”
Clinton ought to know by now that the alleged reformer Khatami is powerless against the theocratic Shiites actually calling the shots in Iran. While Clinton mulled further appeasement during the summer of 1999, students demonstrating in favor of Khatami’s reform policies and against repression were brutally silenced. The Clinton State Department blithely asked Iran not to harm the protesters. But otherwise it was silent.
Nineteen ninety-nine continued to be a banner year for U.S.-Iran relations under Clinton. He treated new evidence of Iran’s hand in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing as an opportunity to seek a thaw in relations. That August, President Clinton sent President Khatami a mere letter asking for help in the investigation, three years after the fact. Even by pre-9/11 standards, Clinton was lax. The 2000 National Commission on Terrorism report faulted Clinton for not pressing Iranian cooperation harder.
We ought to thank Clinton for reminding us of his “years of sabbatical.” He remains a pre-9/11 relic who’s learned nothing from President Bush’s strong foreign policy. A terrorist-sponsor like Iran he treats as a prodigal son needing nothing more than love and attention. Yet if Iran poses a nuclear threat and proves intractable, Bill Clinton will be as responsible as anyone.
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