Biden’s Support for Iran Protesters Comes After Bitter Lessons of 2009

WASHINGTON — The last time waves of protests swept Iran, after the killing of a young woman who was standing on the sidelines of an anti-government rally in 2009, Barack Obama hesitated to back the anti-government movement publicly for fear that Tehran would claim the C.I.A. was secretly sparking the unrest.

Thirteen years later, under remarkably similar circumstances, President Biden has taken a dramatically different approach. He publicly sided with the protesters in his speech to the United Nations last week. The United States moved quickly last week to impose sanctions on the country’s morality police. And the administration has permitted the activation of satellite links and other internet services in hopes of restoring communications among the protesters, despite attempts by Iranian officials to keep them in the dark.

Now the race is on to get the communications equipment into the hands of the protesters — no small task in a country where the government is determined to shut down any view the outside world may have into the depth of its crackdown after the death in police custody of the 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was accused of violating the law on head scarves.

On Friday, the State Department and the Treasury raced to lift sanctions that prevented much of that American-designed technology from flowing into the country — sanctions that were part of a broader effort to cut Iran off from the world until a new nuclear deal was negotiated and the country halted aid to terror groups.

The nuclear deal — which President Trump exited in 2018 — now appears all but dead anyway. And over the weekend, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, who served as a top adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the time of the 2009 uprising, acknowledged that he and others had learned a bitter lesson about the cost of being overly cautious.

“Part of the reason that there was a different kind of approach in 2009 was the belief that somehow if America spoke out, it would undermine the protesters, not aid them,’’ he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“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.”

But openly supporting the protesters is one thing. Defeating Iran’s well-honed ability to switch off the internet is another. Within hours of the administration’s suspension of the sanctions regulations, Elon Musk released a statement, through Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment, declaring that his Starlink satellite systems were “activated in Iran.”

That seemed like a major accomplishment: After Russia took out a European satellite system used by the Ukrainian government, part of a broader effort to blind the country just before the Feb. 24 invasion, it was Starlink that got Ukraine connected again. Senior American intelligence officials have marveled at the speed at which Ukrainians obtained and activated the Starlink boxes, which have small antennas — about 12 inches across — that connect to thousands of low-Earth-orbit satellites.

Within days, Ukrainian ministries were back online. Today, those boxes provide some of Ukraine’s most reliable internet service.

But in Ukraine, the government was eager to get the boxes in. They were airlifted to nearby countries, loaded into trains and trucks and shipped over the border.

Mr. Sadjadpour noted on Twitter that Mr. Musk and the United States government “have sent more than 15,000 Starlink kits to Ukraine, but Ukraine’s government is a close ally and eagerly cooperated. Iran’s regime wants to keep the internet off so it can repress people in the dark.”

Indeed, there is no such access to Iran — and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the mullahs and the Basij, the forces combining to suppress the protests, are determined to keep them out. And it is far from clear that the United States or Israel would put the kind of effort into smuggling in Starlink systems and less sophisticated “internet in a box” technologies that they have devoted to a series of covert programs to undermine the country’s nuclear enrichment facilities.

But that task may soon fall to American intelligence agencies. On Monday there were hints that the administration was looking for ways to get Starlink, in particular, into the hands of protesters.

Officials would not say how, but they acknowledged that the administration had been in contact with Starlink, and clearly discussions were underway about how to put the powerful satellite systems into the hands of the anti-government officials. Different options were being kicked around, with some exploring whether the systems could be driven in — along with many other smuggled goods — or dropped by drones. Satellite systems are illegal in Iran, though television dishes are ubiquitous.

Regardless of whether the Biden administration is successful in helping the protesters communicate and organize, U.S. officials seem driven by one unifying thought: To move faster than they did in 2009.

On June 20 of that year, a 26-year-old philosophy student, Neda Agha-Soltan, stepped out of a car to watch street unrest that followed an election that had clearly been rigged. She was shot through the chest by a sniper, and videos showed her dying on the street. As the images went viral, the demonstrations accelerated.

It was the first major human rights crisis of the new Obama administration, and the incident came just as Mr. Obama was in a secret exchange of letters with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that ultimately led to the negotiations behind the 2015 nuclear deal.

Dennis Ross, a top adviser on Iran at the National Security Council at the time, said on Monday that while getting negotiations underway was a consideration, “we were hearing from people in the green movement” — the anti-government movement — “outside of Iran that we would play into the government’s narrative that the protests were instigated by the U.S.” if Mr. Obama forcefully backed the protesters.

“People on the inside of the movement, in Iran, told us the opposite,’’ he said. “We should have taken them more seriously. A lot of us regret that we moved too slowly.”

Mr. Biden’s advisers, many of whom were involved in those early discussions, seem to agree. They say that they have decided not to pull any punches or worry about the fate of reviving the nuclear deal.

Iran’s own leadership seems determined to crush the protests; the country’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, seemed visibly angry when the subject came up at a news conference at the United Nations General Assembly last week in New York.

In an interview with The New York Times over the weekend, Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, acknowledged that “one of our daughters, a child of my country, was in detention for a short time and she died after three days.” He offered no theories about how that happened and said the country had to put down any violent protests.

“We are not going to allow the instigations and also the propaganda from the outside and from the media to endanger the stability and the security and the safety of our people,” he added.

Alan Yuhas contributed reporting from New York.

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