The drama in Iran marks a turning point in Middle East history — precisely because the United States has chosen, so far, not to intervene.
The Republican politicians charging President Obama with failing to defend Iranian “freedom” have totally missed the significance of what happened last week in Tehran.
Whatever occurs next will not detract from this reality: The unprecedented protests in Tehran last week, with demonstrators marching peacefully for new and fair elections — and then being attacked violently by police and militia — were organized by Iranians themselves.
This flies in the face of the widespread Middle Eastern belief that the hidden hand of the West is always involved, either trying to impose regime change or trying to prevent it.
Iranians still obsess about the U.S. role in overthrowing elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossedegh in 1953. But in this case, even Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in his harsh speech Friday demanding an end to protests, couldn’t credibly claim the United States was behind the rallies. He could only charge that U.S. officials were encouraging the demonstrators with “remarks about human rights.”
The Obama administration did not organize or fund these marchers (or call for regime change, leaving that choice to the Iranian people). Khamenei may accuse opposition leaders of working with the CIA, but this time the charge will ring hollow to most Iranians — and to the wider Middle East.
Indeed, what Iranians have done so far is to put together an amazing campaign of (mostly) nonviolent protest, with brilliantly improvised tactics. The protests have been organized via networks, without any central leadership, said Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford University.
“People have used e-mails and word of mouth,” he said, “and even the postmen have given people directions to where demonstrations are happening,” adding, “People are awed by the level of cooperation.”
Peter Ackerman, founder of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict in Washington, and former board chairman of Freedom House, said he believed it was wise to let the Iranian opposition pick its own tactics without U.S. interference or direction.
“We don’t want to be an anchor on the opposition,” he said, “in a way that permits Ahmadinejad to claim they are stooges of Obama.” That, he said, would decrease the chance of crucial defections from inside the regime.
Just about every Iran expert with whom I’ve spoken echoed this thinking. So did Iranian opposition leaders I met in Tehran in 2006.
And so, by the way, do Republicans like Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State James Baker, and Sen. Richard Lugar. They know that Iran is not, I repeat NOT, a clone of Poland or Czechoslovakia when they rebelled against the Soviets. East European dissidents all wanted U.S. intervention. Iran is in the Middle East, where Western intervention has a bad name.
However, it is imperative for U.S. leaders and the international community to denounce Iran’s use of violence against its own people, as Obama did again yesterday. “The Iranian government must understand that the world is watching,” he said. This message must be repeated over and over.
Beyond that, we can’t fight Iranians’ battles for them, nor can we — as some conservative hawks still fantasize — trigger “regime change.” Most of those on Tehran’s streets were not seeking a bloody revolution or civil war (even though many want the mullahs gone).
Obama also quoted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” He said the international community would bear witness to the Iranian people’s struggle for justice.
The president was sending a special message. Justice is a particularly key concept in Islam; Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad talks constantly about it. But the marchers, who were met with force when they tried to emulate King’s nonviolence, clearly have justice on their side.
If the Supreme Leader chooses to perpetrate an Iranian version of the massacre in Tiananmen Square, he will do so at his peril. Such an attack will undermine the regime’s legitimacy at home and plant the seeds for its eventual demise.
Obama and his European allies should let Tehran know that if the killing continues, this behavior will inevitably undermine the president’s proposed policy of engagement with Iran. Engagement is the correct policy, in principle, but it won’t work with an Iranian regime that perpetrates such an outrage.
Whatever this regime does, however, it can’t reverse the experience the opposition has gained from organizing these protests against severe odds, without outside backing. This will give Iranians the self-confidence to try again, even if this chapter ends badly. Iranians now understand that, even if they lose this round, they have the innate strength to press for justice and change.
— Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the