The West Can Help Iranians Take Back Their Country
Like the last time Iranians took to the streets, in 2009, these easy acts of solidarity are self-satisfying. But they do not substitute for policy or strategy. It’s time for the hard part.
That starts with recognizing that the Iranians chanting their rejection of an Islamic dictatorship in front of police officers, state-backed militias and mosques are now targets. The state’s revolutionary guard corps, which runs most of Iran’s economy like a mafia consortium, has already telegraphed the coming crackdown. So far at least 12 have been killed in clashes with police. The regime has started shutting down social media platforms like Telegram that Iranians use to organize these protests. President Hassan Rouhani -- remember when he was everybody’s favorite “moderate”? -- is warning demonstrators about destroying public property.
Like all dictatorships, Iran’s doesn’t work if its citizens are unafraid of the state. The videos of demonstrations and brazen acts arson that have filled the Telegram channels of Iranian dissidents in the last few months, show that fear is receding. The regime will try to restore it.
This requires a quick reaction from the West. The State Department, for example, should work closely with Telegram, WhatsApp and other platforms in Iran to figure out ways around the state’s cyber-ban. These social media companies should beware of the Iranian regime’s allies using their codes of conduct to kick off legitimate journalists and activists. This happened to Potkin Azarmehr, a U.K.-based broadcaster who was one of the first outside journalists to begin documenting the protests this week.
America’s allies with embassies in Tehran and human-rights groups there should begin to compile the names of Iranians arrested, murdered and tortured. The State Department could help by creating a 24-hour crisis center to coordinate such a list, and to publicize these names in Farsi-language media.
Documenting this information, however, is not enough. Over time, the treatment of those detainees, along with Iranian dissidents already in prison or under house arrest (including the leaders of Iran’s 2009 Green movement) should be linked directly to Western diplomacy with Iran.
This should take two forms. The first is in the realm of state-to-state relations. No Western diplomat should have a meeting with an Iranian counterpart without the fate of the protesters being on the top of the agenda. The model here is the late-Cold War diplomacy with the Soviet Union, when U.S. envoys made the treatment of dissidents there a feature of every other encounter with this dictatorship of the proletariat. If Iran wants to be treated like a normal nation, it must free the opposition members it has not killed or exiled.
The second element of this new policy will take place within Western civil society. Regime figures like Foreign Minister Javad Zarif should no longer be treated like statesmen in soft-soap interviews in the Western media. Universities should stop offering them platforms. Advocates should organize campaigns against European companies seeking the windfall promised by the Iran nuclear deal. The strategy should not be divestment per se. Rather, the message should be: no new deals with Iran so long as its prisons are filled with lawyers, students and activists of the opposition.
All of this presents a chance for Barack Obama to rehabilitate his reputation. He was late and hesitant to support the Iranian protesters in 2009. They asked him only to recognize that their election had just been stolen. Obama spoke out, but never went that far. In his second term, he completed a nuclear deal with the dictatorship the Green movement of 2009 had challenged.
There is currently a Change.org petition urging Obama to speak out in favor of the demonstrations. That is a good start. But the former president should do more. He should devote his good offices to publicizing the cause of Iranian freedom. No American can lead Iran’s opposition, but Obama’s unique understanding of grassroots activism puts him in an ideal position to lead the Western cause of solidarity. He could organize lawyers, newspaper editors, teachers, librarians and human rights groups to partner Iranians under siege, following the Jewish-American movement to allow Soviet refuseniks to emigrate.
With all of this in mind, it’s also important to avoid past mistakes. Let’s start with hubris. Iranians will be the authors of their liberation. No State Department or CIA program will bring freedom to Iran. The expert class that has gotten so much of Iran wrong in recent years should step aside and listen to those Iranians driven out of their home country who live today in the West.
So far, the movement in Iran appears to have the advantage of being leaderless. Unlike the Greens of 2009, there are no Iranian leaders who have emerged as the personality or face of this new opposition. Let’s leave it that way. People’s Mujahedin leader Maryam Rajavi, or supporters of the Pahlavi dynasty that fell in 1979, should not be treated as leaders or spokesmen for this organic uprising. They seek to impose an agenda on a movement they did not create. Don’t let them do it.
The same goes for those who have emerged as a de facto lobby for President Rouhani and his faction within the Iranian regime. This network, based primarily in Washington, includes the National Iranian American Council, the Ploughshares Network and the many journalists and experts titillated by U.S.-Iranian diplomacy. For years they told us Rouhani was a reformer. Today they whisper that these demonstrators are really a ploy of Rouhani’s “hardline” opposition. They celebrate “elections” that have the legitimacy as those for student government. They want Trump to be silent today.
Finally, it’s important to not be discouraged. I hope the unrest in Iran spreads and the fanatics, thieves and terrorists who have infantilized Iranians for 38 years are toppled. But it’s likely the unrest today is the beginning of a longer process. This regime has survived mass demonstrations and riots before and restored the fear necessary to continue its misrule. It’s the West’s job in these coming weeks to support our real allies, the Iranian people demanding freedom.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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