How to help Iran

As the regime cracks down, the opposition is looking for support —but not interference

How to help IranBarack Obama began his presidency with a speech that implied a new relationship between the United States and Iran. “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history,” he said during his inaugural address, and then added, “but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Now Obama has his answer. Iran will not unclench its fist.

The past two weeks have seen massive street protests in Iran by hundreds of thousands of citizens who are not willing to accept the official results of a presidential election in which incumbent hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner. The results were announced before all the votes could have been counted and were endorsed by Iran’s unelected supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, before the Interior Ministry released final numbers. They showed Ahmadinejad winning even in the regional and ethnic strongholds of his rival, reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. They are not plausible.

The Iranian regime first tried to ignore the protests. Ahmadinejad compared demonstrators to soccer hooligans, and Khamenei insisted the results were fair. But when protesters flooded the streets in numbers that have not been seen the 1979 Islamic Revolution, with the support of powerful political insiders such as former presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, they could no longer be dismissed. Iran was at a crossroads. Its government could bend to the will of the people, order new elections, and try to preserve some vestige of legitimacy; or it could crush them.

Iran’s theocracy chose repression. It banned demonstrations and sent members of the paramilitary Islamic Basij militia to storm university dorms and throw students off balconies. Police and Basij charged through peaceful crowds on motorcycles and beat them with clubs. They shot to death or otherwise killed at least 17 demonstrators, though reports from Iranians on the ground suggest the true number of victims is higher. Wounded protesters arriving at hospitals were quickly treated and then sent elsewhere to recover, as the pro-regime Revolutionary Guards prowled hospital corridors, looking for patients with gunshot wounds.

Mousavi, once a loyal partisan of the founder of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, has exploded his image of a modest reformer by openly defying Khomeini’s successor, Khamenei. He has urged his supporters to continue their demonstrations and proclaimed himself ready for martyrdom. Khamenei, who warned Mousavi that he will be held responsible for “bloodshed, violence, and rioting,” could once pretend to be Iran’s spiritual leader, supposedly above the mundane grit of politics. No longer. Now his legitimacy is tied to Ahmadinejad’s grip on power. The divide in Iran is not only between the government and the people, but also within the political establishment itself.

The Revolutionary Guards have meanwhile vowed to “firmly confront in a revolutionary way rioters and those who violate the law.” So many of the protesters are young, but even those without memories of the events will know that the last time such revolutionary justice was dispensed, in 1988, thousands of political prisoners were hanged.

And yet neither side shows any sign of giving in. Demonstrations take place almost every day, and at night Iranians shout revolutionary slogans from their rooftops while Basij stalk the streets below trying to determine where the noise is coming from.

It is impossible to tell how this will end. It is almost certain, though, that Iran will never be the same again. There is no returning to the way things were before the election. Iran will move toward liberty or sink deeper into dictatorship. The shackles will tighten or they will be shaken loose. The question for Barack Obama, and for other world leaders, is what, if anything, they can do to influence which of these outcomes is more likely.

Barack Obama, unlike his predecessor, George W. Bush, never pushed the idea of regime change in Iran, and yet he is now witnessing the kind of pro-democracy revolt that neo-conservatives dreamed about for years.

His response so far has been restrained. On Tuesday, after facing mounting criticism, he did say he was “appalled and outraged” by the regime’s actions. But he hasn’t endorsed Mousavi or explicitly described the elections as fraudulent, explaining that he doesn’t want to give the Iranian government an excuse to blame the United States for the uprising. Instead, he has said that the United States stands with those Iranians who are seeking their “universal” rights to freedom of speech and assembly, and quoted Martin Luther King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Obama said King was correct, and he’s probably right. As Payam Akhavan, a professor of international law at McGill University, told Maclean’s last week, whatever happens in the short term, the ground beneath the Islamic Republic is crumbling. The millions who have taken to the streets in recent weeks are not going to forget their grievances, and governments that are not legitimate don’t last forever.

But some analysts believe there is more the United States can do. Dan Senor, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former foreign policy adviser in the George W. Bush administration, says the United States should endorse Mousavi. He acknowledges that Mousavi, a former prime minister, is hardly an obvious revolutionary, but like the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, he has set off a chain of events he never envisioned and no longer really controls. “I believe he is a transitional figure,” Senor said in an interview with Maclean’s. “The movement he catalyzed is larger then him.”

Senor says the United States should try to contact Mousavi and other reformers (or their family members, should they be jailed) to acknowledge their struggle, express concern for their safety, and offer assistance. He says that Mousavi may decide that any contact with the United States would be harmful and refuse the call, but he argues that the attempt should still be made.

Senor sees a model for supporting the Iranian reformist movement in the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, in which suspect election results were overturned by a mass pro-democracy uprising. Similar events took place in Georgia and Serbia. While American NGOs helped opposition parties and movements behind the scenes, the United States also applied more overt diplomatic pressure, linking future American engagement to the government’s legitimacy.

The success of these pro-democracy uprisings so worried Iran that in September 2007 Khamenei appointed Brig.-Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari as head of the Revolutionary Guards. Jafari was previously in charge of the Revolutionary Guards’ Strategic Studies Centre, and under his supervision the centre investigated these so-called “velvet revolutions” in places like Ukraine and Georgia with the goal of preventing something similar from happening in Iran. He took these lessons to his new post as leader of the Revolutionary Guards and established special brigades within the Basij to put down internal uprisings.

We have likely seen Jafari’s proteges among the baton-swingers in Tehran. The Iranian government has also accused outside powers of controlling the protesters, though there is no evidence this is true. For Senor, this is all the more reason for the United States to back the opposition—it will be blamed for the unrest in Iran regardless of what it does, so it might as well support an embattled democratic movement.

He cautions, however, that support is different than interference or instigation. “This reform movement is happening on its own,” he says. “We are not asking the Iranian people to stand up and risk their lives. They’re already doing that. This is not a movement that we are responsible for. The question is are we going to support them?”

For some analysts, the answer is no. “The idea that Washington tries to champion democracy protests wherever or whenever they happen, irrespective of the legacy or the history there, is relatively counterproductive,” says Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “This is not an American story. We are not an actor in this development in Iran. We can’t help it. And we can probably only hurt the cause of people we would wish to see advanced.”

Obama’s position is complicated by his proposal to meet directly with Iran’s leadership to discuss their nuclear program. Some of his critics, such as Senor, say Obama wishes to avoid antagonizing the Iranian regime so as not to jeopardize future negotiations once the current uprising is suppressed. This is the fear among some Iranian democrats as well. Arang Keshavarzian, an associate professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at New York University, was in Iran for the election and during the demonstrations that followed. Two of his Iranian friends told him how appalling it would be to many Iranians if, five or six months from now, once all the fuss had died down, they were to turn on their televisions and see Obama sitting around a negotiating table with Ahmadinejad, as if the vote rigging and the shooting of protesters never happened.

Three years ago, Akbar Ganji, one of Iran’s most prominent democratic dissidents, wrote a “Letter to America” that was published in the Washington Post. He expressed his fear that the Iranian government would seek a deal with the United States in which it would make concessions about its nuclear program if America would turn a blind eye to Iran’s repression of its own people.

“In Iran, we hope to achieve our goal of a new polity and a new constitution not by violence but by following a peaceful and democratic path,” he wrote. “And in this struggle we need moral support from all freedom-loving people around the world—particularly the United States . . . We ask that in shaping its policies toward the Iranian regime, the United States not overlook the interests of Iranian civil society.”
The fact that so many of the signs held aloft by Farsi-speaking Iranians marching in Tehran today are written in English suggests that they, too, want the moral support of the United States and other “freedom-loving people” around the world. Keshavarzian, who took part in the post-election demonstrations, says there are efforts among Iranian democrats to forge links in other countries, but not necessarily with foreign governments.

“Iranians realize that these governments have limited resources and limited leverage with the Iranian government,” he said in an interview with Maclean’s. Instead, Iranian bus drivers, for example, will seek the support of their counterparts in Budapest, London, or Toronto. “The attempt is to get civil society relationships established with the outside world, to create solidarity with like-minded organizations.”

Maclean’s reached one of the Iranian protesters, Zahra, a 23-year-old university student, with the help of Arash Azizi, an Iranian journalist who has recently moved to Canada, and asked her what she and her fellow protesters wanted from the outside world, and especially from the United States. She said she hoped Obama wouldn’t recognize Ahmadinejad as Iran’s president, but didn’t want America to interfere in Iran. She detests the theocracy that runs her country, but wants Iranians to end it on their own.

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