With turmoil in Iran gaining more and more attention—at least when Liberia isn’t taking center stage—the media guessing game about the Persian nation has kicked into high-gear: is Iran next? Of course the question implies military action, but Iran could be “next”—just not in the military sense.
Last Wednesday marked the fourth anniversary of the July 9, 1999 crackdown on peaceful protesters at Tehran University, which immediately triggered more than 15,000 demonstrators to take to the streets. Even though the Iranian regime has recently jailed hundreds of the freedom movement’s leaders—and thousands of people in all—as many as 10,000 protesters marked the anniversary in Tehran alone. Iranians demanding freedom and a truly democratic government were met with tear gas and wide scale arrests.
The international press has labeled the demonstrators “students,” but that’s quite misleading. Students account for most of the leaders of the peace protests, but the movement has stretched into working class and upper-middle class neighborhoods alike—and the government is as unpopular as any time since the fall of the Shah in 1979. The protesters want what many Americans take for granted: freedom. They want to be able to wear jeans and a t-shirt, listen to pop music on a boom box, and yes, to choose their own government.
Iran is a country with a rich cultural heritage, one that is quite capable of sustaining an American-style government. The population is well-educated, and the 70% of the country under the age of 25 is largely secular. Unlike most Middle Eastern countries where Islamic fundamentalism has a certain appeal because it has never taken the reins of power, Iran is a nation whose citizens have had more than twenty years to develop their disdain for fundamentalist rule. They are hungry for a homeland that looks more like America.
Too bad the U.S. State Department hasn’t been helping them reach that goal.
To listen to the diplomats at Foggy Bottom, Iran is a country divided between the religious “hardliners” and the moderate “reformers.” State’s number-two official actually called Iran a “democracy” in an interview with the Los Angeles Times this February. Give the ruling mullahs credit for this much—they managed to dupe the U.S. State Department.
The Iranian mullahs pulled off an impressive marketing job by holding two consecutive elections in which a “reformer” won the Presidency and then allowing the “reformers” to win a majority of parliament in the 2000 election. Beneath the surface, though, the story is much different. The Council of Guardians, a panel of twelve mullahs that controls most of Iran, vetted all candidates for President and Parliament. Even if the “reformers” who control the Parliament are actual reformers, they have little power to change anything. The Council of Guardians can veto any bill it chooses to—and the Parliament can doing nothing more.
But the greatest—and most dangerous—myth that the mullahs have managed to perpetuate is that President Mohammad Khatami is a “reformer.” What most don’t realize is that he spent a decade as Iran’s chief censor, from 1982 to 1992, where he censored over 600 publications. He was one of 238 people who placed their hats in the ring—and 234 were declared ineligible by the Council of Guardians. In other words, Khatami was only of four candidates deemed acceptable by the mullahs.
Even though the elections were hardly more democratic than those found in the old Soviet Union, Iran’s attempts to dress them up as something more apparently worked. Secretary of State Colin Powell earlier this month called President Khatami “freely elected.” But the harm caused by Powell’s department runs much deeper than mere rhetoric.
For several years now, State has been trying to “engage” the mullahs. That approach has yielded little; the mullahs are still brutally repressing the Iranian people, and their efforts to develop nukes have not even slowed. The alternative approach isn’t a military one, though. State could truly support the protesters—as President Bush has repeatedly done—and it could refuse to legitimize a crumbling regime with more “talks.”
These steps wouldn’t be a panacea—but they would be a crucial place to start.