Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident and Israeli politician who now heads the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, assailed US President Barack Obama for failing to support anti-regime dissidents in the region.

Most importantly, he indicated, Obama’s decision not to encourage the would-be reformers confronting the ayatollahs’ regime in 2009 doomed those protests, which might otherwise have led to a revolution ousting the hardline Islamist regime.

The case of the thwarted revolution in Iran was “the saddest” instance of Obama’s misguided human rights stance, said Sharansky in a wide-ranging interview with The Times of Israel. “Everything starts from the fact that in 2009, when Iranians were ready for the revolution, when millions of double thinkers were going to cross this line,” said Sharansky, “they hear the message from the American president: Engagement with the government of Iran is more important than [its] replacement.”

The president’s stance, he said, “took all the energy out of this [movement]. And if it had succeeded then,” he added, “the whole Arab Spring could have been a very different story.”

President George W. Bush bestows the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Natan Sharansky, a former prisoner of the Soviet regime, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Dec. 15, 2006 (photo credit: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

President George W. Bush bestows the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Natan Sharansky, a former prisoner of the Soviet regime, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Dec. 15, 2006 (photo credit: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

More generally, Sharansky castigated Obama for failing to support dissidents across the region who were standing up against dictatorship. “With all that is happening in the Middle East,” he charged, “the president of the United States doesn’t take a position.”

Sharansky, who spent nine years in a Soviet gulag after seeking to immigrate to Israel before his release in 1986, said bitterly that “if American politicians had treated [Soviet dissident Andrei] Sakharov the way American leaders today are treating Egyptian dissidents, the Soviet Union might still exist.”

He said that while president Jimmy Carter had taken a highly principled stance in support of Sakharov, and George W. Bush “met with more than 100 democratic dissidents… and broke many taboos” on their behalf, Obama “simply stopped. You can’t tell me one important human rights activist [with whom Obama has met] when he was not already on the winning side.”

Sharansky said he’d had only one meeting with Obama, during the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, and that Obama made clear then that “it would be very important to him to continue this tradition where American presidents help dissidents.” But that changed after Obama assumed the presidency.

US President Obama delivering his famed Cairo Speech in 2009. The president highlighted the need for social progress in his first major address to the Muslim world. (photo credit: screen capture, YouTube)

US President Barack Obama speaks in Cairo on June 4, 2009. (photo credit: screen capture, YouTube)

Sharansky, the former head of a center-right political party and an ex-Israeli government minister, also said the current US-led effort to quickly broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal was doomed to failure, because a climate for peace had to be built bottom up. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was telling the truth when he said that Palestinian society is not ready to live with Jews in its midst, Sharansky said. “He’s right. He’s saying, Our society is not ready to accept this. He’s not saying, I’m anti-Semitic. But this, for me, is the barometer of readiness or not readiness to accept a peace treaty.”

The guiding human rights principle for the US in the Middle East and beyond, Sharansky said, must be to support processes for creating societies with free economies, political freedom, and bottom-up educational work. “Just consistently support steps towards civil society — in Egypt, in the West Bank, everywhere,” he urged. “Do that for a few years.”