For over a week now, Iran has been undergoing violent protests, at first in Tehran, but quickly spreading to other cities. Pro-Islamist militia with clubs and chain were sent out to quell the protests, to be restrained only after the beatings had made it into the international news. "In the past few nights, my peers — and our mothers and sisters — have poured into the streets of our city. Some of us have been arrested and many have been injured by the ruthless attacks of Ansaar-e-Hezbollah. These people attack whomever they see in the streets with tear gas, sticks, iron chains, swords, daggers, and, for the last two nights, guns. It has become almost routine for us to go out at night, chant slogans, get beaten, lose some of our friends, see our sisters beaten, and then return home," writes a student from Tehran under the name Koorosh Afshar.
The protests were fed when California-based Persian-language TV stations beamed images of the demonstrations back into Tehran. When Iranians saw the protests, they flocked to them. Run by Iranian exiles, these rogue satellite stations have been a thorn in the mullah's side. They have been so hated that there has been a recent crackdown on illegal satellite dishes in Iran to prevent people from seeing what is happening in their own country and know of the support they have from others.
Calls from inside Iran have been strengthening for months. In an article in the 25 April issue, Le Monde, a French newspaper, said that the Iranian leadership are apprehensive of the "fierce pro-Americanism" of the Iranian people, adding, "They are especially worried of the vox populi, that asks for a change of the regime with the help of the American Marines." It is reporting that many Iranians openly proclaim their support for American intervention. A filmmaker, requesting to remain anonymous, bluntly stated, "The Afghans and the Iraqis have been freed from dictatorships, why not us?" Behzad Nabavi, the Majles Deputy-speaker and reformist, explains, "If one admits that the Iraqis are delighted with Saddam Hussein's end, one must also think about the possibility that maybe, the Iranians would celebrate at the end of the Islamic Republic as well." In an open letter to President Khatami asking for the release of fellow writers from prison, Ebrahim Nabavi wrote that he would prefer American occupation to the current government that consistently ignores the rights of the citizens.
On those calling for American intervention, Behzad Nabavi said, "It is obvious that it is the result of our mistake. The fact that people prefer a foreign invasion to living in the Islamic Republic is only the sign of our failure. We have not been able to fulfill the people's democratic aspirations and it is normal that they are disappointed."
Regardless of how you see the Iraq war initially, it is undeniably producing fruit already. Leadership in Tehran, along with the rest of the world, is getting a clear message. A threat of force is only credible if it is occasionally backed up, and now a fear of America seems to be moving through governments across the region. Nabavi explains how Iran can avoid the same happening to it, "How would I not be afraid of an America armed to the teeth and who demonstrated in Iraq its total disdain of respect for the sovereignty of the States? Yes, I am afraid. The Americans are apparently able do whatever they like; no matter the United Nations or even the Western public opinion." He continued, "The only and somewhat acceptable argument to the eyes of the western intellectuals justifying a hostile action against a country is the instauration of democracy." He sees that "the best defense of Iran against the Americans would be to reinforce its democracy in order to deprive them of their arguments." If the perception is that restoring democracy is how you stave off American force, then we came across loud and clear in Iraq. It is hard to imagine a better message.
Beyond the hyperbolic rhetoric for American assistance in deposing the regime, practical ideas have come out. Recently, an institute in Iran conducted a poll, asking if relations with America should be mended. The results here an overwhelming endorsement of the idea. However, the idea was so acutely feared by the mullahs that the directors of the institute were jailed and the Revolutionary Guard have issued warnings of imprisonment to those calling for normalization of relations with the United States. Then, on May 7, 153 members of parliament called for restoration of American relations as a deterrent effect, saying that it was necessary for the stability of the country.
In a May 5 editorial in Iran va Jahan, a Persian paper based out of France, Reza Bayegan exemplifies this newfound fear, echoing Charles Krauthammer's sentiment, "The Islamic Republic today does not have the luxury of dealing with a naive U.S. administration as it did during the Presidency of Jimmy Carter. American Foreign policy today is informed by the valuable lesson that the cancer of terrorism can be eradicated only by strong resolve and not by pampering the malignant tumors." Reza draws a parallel between the present environment in Iran and that of the early moments of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, especially how both periods feature ineffectual leaders with popular support that merely distract from the issues. An Iranian citizen explains, "There isn't any difference between reformers and the conservatives anymore." "It is simple. We don't want the Islamic Republic anymore," he says, "It took us a quarter of century to realize that the revolution has ended in failure."
Now may be the time for action. In recent months, Iranian expatriates across the globe have raised their voices to almost ear-splitting intensity. Republican Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas says that US-Iranian relations are at a key juncture: "If we falter now by giving any type of comfort or legitimacy to the existing regime against the will of Iran's own people, we will be making a mistake we will pay for years to come." We cannot sit idly by. As we had to fight for what we wanted in Iraq, we will also have to fight for what we want in Iran. This doesn't need to be a military conflict, but a political conflict. Rob Sobhani, a professor at Georgetown University, says we need a definitive policy, "If we did this right, we could have a regime change in Iran. It would just take for the U.S. to make very clear that we want to change the regime — no platitudes, no pussyfooting around."
Last time we had a chance, we squandered it. July 8, 2002 the State Department refused to send a message to those protesting the Iranian government, the next day in Tehran Michael Ledeen took them to task. The official response by Richard Boucher was, "No, the official U.S. line is, you know, we don't comment when people demonstrate. I mean, when do we give messages to demonstrators?" After chuckles from the press he continued, "I guess no, I remember. Bob Strauss went out the night that the Soviet Union fell out, fell apart, and he gave the liberty message to demonstrators. That's about the only instance that I can remember that we've been out there. Certainly in places as far away as Tehran, the idea that we would have a message every time there's a demonstration is a little far-fetched." Four days later, President Bush issued a statement, "We have seen throughout history the power of one simple idea: when given a choice, people will choose freedom. As we have witnessed over the past few days, the people of Iran want the same freedoms, human rights, and opportunities as people around the world. Their government should listen to their hopes."
This time Bush used the opportunity. "This is the beginning of people expressing themselves towards a free Iran which I think is positive," he said. "America stands squarely by their side, and I would urge the Iranian administration to treat them with the utmost of respect." Secretary of State Colin Powell came out with his support on Tuesday, and even Foggy Bottom has contributed remarks, not to be left on the wrong side of the tracks.
A few sentences of after the fact support is nice, but more aggressive and proactive efforts would be even better. The Iran Democracy Act, Senator Brownback's proposal (S.Res.82), is currently winding its way through Congress calls for $50 million to be provided to television and radio broadcasts and other freedom supporting activities. Ledeen, in a speech made to the Iranian diaspora, said that it could take a mere $20 million to topple those in power.
However, some see American support as an alienating force. Senator Brownback tries to counter this idea. "Part of the reason comes from a failure to realize exactly how much the situation in Iran has changed. The traditional foreign policy view on Iran has been that anything the U.S. does to help democracy dissidents will only poison them inside their own society as tools of America," he states. They are already being called American puppets. The recent uprisings have been called American-caused by Ayatollah Khamenei. However, when the vast majority of the population of in favor of change, it is difficult to carry on this fallacy. While the chants were once "Death to America," now as if spitting in the face of the mullahs, an American-style democracy is being demanded.
There is a trap though that Brownback describes, "This is where it can get confusing for American policymakers — and where it is critical that we not make a mistake. It seems logical to support the reformers in Iran — after all, any reform attempt of this terrorist regime is better than nothing. But in this case, that is not true. If the U.S. government — or policymakers reach out to the reformers — they would essentially be throwing a lifeline to this dying tyranny and they would be working in collaboration with the current Iranian regime against the people of Iran." One Iranian balked at the idea of supporting the reformers, saying, "Those that say they want to change the current system are either ignorant of our political structure or are seeking business deals from the clerics."
Upon hearing Brownback's statement, the Student Movement Coordination Committee for Democracy in Iran (SMCCDI) released a response: "Sir, any rapprochement with the present regime, under the pretext of 'dialogue,' with the so-called 'elected', 'moderate,' and 'reformists' would be rejected by the freedom-loving Iranians and would gravely undermine the status of the United States as the champion of the democratic principles and the ideals that she stands for; the very foundation of America. Indeed, any relations or associations with the present regime that would, in any way, extend its life and its hold on power could bear crucial consequences for relations with the future generations of Iran."
President Khatami's credibility has eroded to such lows that many are now calling for his resignation and the throat of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. The Christian Science Monitor is reporting that "some 90 percent of Iranians themselves want change, and that 70 percent want dramatic change." France has people setting themselves ablaze in the streets to protest the rounding up of the Mujahedeen Khalq (MKO), also known as the People's Mujahedeen, an Iranian opposition group officially listed as a terrorist organization in Europe as well as the US.
There are other countries that do not seem to care and continue to support despotism in exchange for profit and power. With the tremendous victory in Iraq, France and the clergy of Iran have been put in an unusual friendship. They both have an interest in seeing America fail at its democracy project next door. In the prelude to a recently signed joint investment agreement, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin met with the Iranian regime. Banafsheh Zand-Bonazzi, a New York based activist, said that protests against Mr. de Villepin's trip were planned: "Iranian university students and women are going to go out there and demonstrate in front of the French Embassy. We're hoping it will be a huge turnout. The French have made dirty deals with the mullahs. Chirac is one of the best friends of Khatami."
There are forces even within the American government that would rather placate the mullahs than allow the Iranians to confront them. Richard Haas, a departing State Department official, has been trying to find ways to engage Iran in contradiction to the President's strategy. An administration official explained that Haas "didn't agree with the president that Tehran should be vilified, so he simply did his own thing." Then Haas convinced Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitrage to call Iran a democracy in a Los Angeles Times interview. He will soon be gone, but most likely his successor will be chosen to share his views.
Congressional support for a change in government in Iran is mixed. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R., Ind.), said he would "not necessarily" want to see an overthrow of the theocratic government, instead opting to see it come through the "democratic processes of Iran." This contrasts greatly from Sen. Brownback's call, "Free Iran!" On the Democratic side, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware favors "working with and supporting the civilian leadership in there that's been taking on the clerical leadership." Rep. Brad Sherman of California however argues, "We also need to ensure that our government adopts policies to hasten the fall of that regime by denying it material assistance."
Once a revolution is started, it may be difficult for the hard-liners to stop. Constantine Menges, a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute and a presidential assistant for national security affairs to Reagan, says, "Once the Iranian people rise up using political means, it is highly probable the Iranian Army — more than 80 percent of whom also voted against the hard-line clerics in the most recent national elections — will not defend the regime. Rather, the Iranian military will act to prevent the extremists in the secret police and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from successfully repressing the Iranian people's quest for liberty."