It is often forgotten, but there was a major Israeli dimension to the Iranian revolution of 1978-79 as well. The shah of Iran was Israel's best friend in the Muslim world, an essential part of Israel's doctrine of the periphery. Israel not only cultivated nations just outside the core Arab center, but in the case of Iran received a substantial portion of its energy supplies via covert oil deliveries to Eilat from the Persian Gulf. Israel and Iran also collaborated on joint development and testing of a ballistic missile system capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.
President Richard Nixon and his advisor Henry Kissinger formalized the U.S. relationship during a meeting with the shah in 1972. They asked him to serve as the protector of U.S. security interests in the Persian Gulf at a time when the British were withdrawing and the United States was tied down in Indochina. Not only was Iran (and specifically the shah) the linchpin of U.S. regional security, but the United States had no backup plan. So confident was everyone that the shah or his successor would maintain this highly personal relationship that there had been no effort to fashion a Plan B in the event of an unexpected catastrophe.
There is genuine irony in the fact that Carter, Sadat, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin were at Camp David, in meetings that set the terms for more than a generation of uneasy peace in the Middle East, on the same day that the shah's regime experienced what would eventually prove to be its death blow -- the massacre of protestors at Jaleh Square in Tehran on Sept. 8, 1978.
There is no need to strain the analogy. Iran and Egypt were and are very different places, with very different political dynamics. But the fundamental nature of the decision that is required today by the United States is not very different from the dilemma faced by the Carter administration three decades ago. Should you back the regime to the hilt, in the conviction that a change of leadership would likely endanger your most precious security interests? Or should you side with the opposition -- either because you agree with its goals or simply because you want to be on the "right side of history" (and in a better position to pursue your policy objectives) once the dust has settled?
Of course, there is a third way. You may try to carefully maintain your ties with the current ruler (see Biden above), while offering rhetorical support to freedom of expression, democracy, and human rights. Regrettably, as the Carter administration can attest, that may produce the worst of both worlds. If the ruler falls, he and his supporters will accuse you of being so lukewarm in your support that it was perceived as disavowal; whereas the opposition will dismiss your pious expressions as cynical and ineffectual.
Revolutions are inherently unpredictable. They may fizzle or subside in the face of sustained regime oppression. They may inspire a hard line military man to "restore order" and perhaps thereby elevate himself into a position of political authority that he is later loath to relinquish. They may propel a determined radical fringe into power and thereby impose an ideology that has nothing to do with what people thought they were fighting for. They may go on far longer than anyone imagined at the start.
But for engaged outside powers, such as the United States in the Egyptian situation, a major revolt calls for a leap into the unknown. If you sit back and wait, events may simply pass you by. But if you jump into the fray too early (or with a mistaken notion of what is actually going on) you may lose all influence in the future political construct, whatever that may be. In any event, you should start thinking about how to repair or rebuild a security structure that had been safely on autopilot for too long.
Welcome to the real world, Mr. Obama.