Sunday, June 21, 2009

My Thoughts on the Crisis in Iran

"Well, you can't climb down
and you can't sit still.
That's a storm
that's gonna last until
the final wind blows,
and when the wind blows
the cradle will rock" - MARC BLITZSTEIN, The Cradle Will Rock

"The revolution will not be televised. It will be Twittered instead." - ERNESTINE WADE, commenting on the Huffington Post

As I write this, my roommate Joe, who is an Iranian and a naturalized U.S. citizen, has been following the still-unfolding events in Iran. Despite efforts by the ruling Islamic Republic to neutralize and blackout the news media from covering the crisis, videos and messages sent out via Twitter and YouTube, as well as bloggers' postings on both the Huffington Post and elsewhere, have provided graphic images and horrific, dramatic narrative about what's still unfolding and imploding within Iran.

What's clearly unfolding before our eyes is a culmination of thirty years of living with the consequences of trading one form of oppression for another -- replacing a monarchical dictatorship presided over by a not-too-benevolent despot to a theocratic dictatorship run by fundamentalist Islamic clerics with a penchant for psychological bullying. Matt Steinglass provides a valuable insight into the psychological bullying that is at the core of the crisis:

"When you make people accept a plausible fiction, you’re just winning that one issue. But when you make them accept a lie which everyone knows is a lie, you’re destroying their integrity, destroying their will to describe the world as they see it, rather than as you tell them it is. It’s the bully on the playground holding the weaker kid’s arm and slapping his cheek with it, saying “Why are you hitting yourself?” Like Vaclav Havel’s grocer hanging “Workers of the world, unite!” in his shop window, once a person has acquiesced to something they do not believe, and which everyone knows they do not believe, they become complicit in their own oppression."

And in commenting on the corruption that served to ferment the current crisis, Andrew Sullivan notes:

"I've written before that this reminds me of the American rather than the French revolution - because it is being waged not as a means to destroy the system, but to force it to live up to its democratic promises. And that's why it's so potent. That's also why Obama's emphasis on justice, rather than freedom, is so shrewd. What we have to focus on is simply the election, its fraudulence and the necessity of a new vote. That's all. If those promises are met, the coup-regime will fall. Of course no liberal democracy will instantly follow. Mousavi is not a radical; he's a moderate establishment type. This is Gorbachev not Yeltsin. But this is not something to fear; it is something to embrace, as Reagan did. Spencer Ackerman's great take:

The west has nothing to fear from Moussavi's restorative attempt to reconcile Islam and republicanism in and of itself. Obviously the Iranian government has its interests and desires and we have ours, and they can conflict. But Moussavi's rhetoric, in this important speech at least, is not filled with the anti-western demagoguery that marked Khomeini's and marks Ahmadinejad's. The opposition movement is not a movement of "liberals" in the way that some inwardly-focused American writers lazily imagine. But that doesn't mean that the reformist syncretism that Moussavi offers adds up to an effort that western liberals, intellectually, can't support. What it means is that Iranians are working to redefine their Islamic Revolution, not abandon it, and do so in a way that favors openness and justice and freedom.

To his credit, President Obama astutely and sensibly stayed out of the crisis, differentiating himself by offering moral support for the protesters while not antagonizing the ruling regime. In his speech yesterday in which he responded to the crisis in Iran, President Obama stated:

"The Iranian government must understand that the world is watching. We mourn each and every innocent life that is lost. We call on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people. The universal rights to assembly and free speech must be respected, and the United States stands with all who seek to exercise those rights.

As I said in Cairo, suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. The Iranian people will ultimately judge the actions of their own government. If the Iranian government seeks the respect of the international community, it must respect the dignity of its own people and govern through consent, not coercion.

Martin Luther King once said - "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." I believe that. The international community believes that. And right now, we are bearing witness to the Iranian peoples’ belief in that truth, and we will continue to bear witness."

Unlike a ignoramus like our previous president, Obama came off as intelligent and restrained. Even so, Obama continues to take heat from from neocon talking heads and conservative politicians for what they perceive as his unwillingness to directly and forcefully intervene in the Iran crisis. However, as Washington Post columnist George Will points out on today's This Week:

The president is being roundly criticized for insufficient, rhetorical support for what’s going on over there. It seems to me foolish criticism. The people on the streets know full well what the American attitude toward the regime is. And they don’t need that reinforced.

And Peggy Noonan concurs in the Wall Street Journal:

"To refuse to see all this as progress, or potential progress, is perverse to the point of wicked. To insist the American president, in the first days of the rebellion, insert the American government into the drama was shortsighted and mischievous. The ayatollahs were only too eager to demonize the demonstrators as mindless lackeys of the Great Satan Cowboy Uncle Sam, or whatever they call us this week. John McCain and others went quite crazy insisting President Obama declare whose side America was on, as if the world doesn't know whose side America is on. "In the cause of freedom, America cannot be neutral," said Rep. Mike Pence. Who says it's neutral?"

But perhaps the best distillation of what is hoped for inside Iran is provided by Sullivan himself:

"Did you notice how many times he invoked the word "justice" in his message? That's the word that will resonate most deeply with the Iranian resistance. What a relief to have someone with this degree of restraint and prudence and empathy - refusing to be baited by Khamenei or the neocons, and yet taking an eloquent stand, as we all do, in defense of freedom and non-violence. The invocation of MLK was appropriate too. What on earth has this been but, in its essence, a protest for voting rights? Above all, the refusal to coopt their struggle for ours, because freedom is only ever won, and every democracy wil be different: this is an act of restraint that is also a statement of pure confidence in the power of a free people.

I share the confidence. I wrote a couple weeks back that something is happening in Iran. But it is not the only place where something is happening. The rejection of al Qaeda in Iraq and Afghanistan; the ground-up election of (President) Obama in America; and now the rising up of Iranians for freedom and civility with their neighbors: these are the green shoots of recovery from 9/11 and its wake. Empowered by new information technology, chastened by the apocalyptic conflicts of the last few years, determined to shift course away from civilizational warfare, the people of many countries are grasping for a new order and a new peace. It will not be easy; and it will not be short. But it is the only path worth taking.

And these Iranians are now leading the rest of us."

In the late 1980's during the Tiananmen Square student protests in China, it was fax machines that helped get the message out to the world. Twenty years later, it was Twitter and social networks like Facebook that's getting the word out about what's imploding within Iran.

Now why do you think riot police were raiding the universities and smashing computers? The current regime is desperate to hold on to power at all costs. And what's coming down in Iran is akin to what H.R Halderman said about the toothpaste during the Watergate scandal: once it's out of the tube, there's no way you can put it back inside again. To paraphrase Fannie Lou Hamer, the Iranian people are now marching in the streets en masse because they are sick and tired of being sick and tired.

The Islamic Republic ruling Iran is now cowering in fear, and that's because they fear what Chileans call "the cleansing power of the truth." To paraphrase Gloria Steimen, the truth is setting the Iranian people free and taking it to the streets in defiance. But the truth first pissed them off.

It took a national election rocked by allegations of massive fraud to unleash so much pent-up frustration amongst its citizens. They felt disenfranchised, and perhaps rightfully so, for their uncounted and unaccounted votes represented a referendum against the entire regime. Now they are seeking change by voting with their bodies and y taking it to the streets. The Islamic Republic ruling Iran can only be brought down or changed if they assert themselves by marching in the streets. If they fear the wrath of its own people, it's because they are stuck in a proverbial Hobson's choice: either have to shoot its own people in cold blood or to cede power.

The clergy threw down the gauntlet and served notice that they will crack down with violent force. The impending strikes by merchants and public servants, and the continued street protests, are sending a direct message to those in power: We shall not be moved, we shall not be bought and sold, and we will not be intimidated. This comes from a people who were imprisoned for speaking their minds and for writing what they think. After thirty years of oppression from a theocratic state, why do you think they've had it up to there?

The response by Iran's leadership was indeed an insult not only to the maturity and alertness of its citizens, as is its provocatively insulting portrayal of its own people acting independently by protesting peacefully, and accusing their healthy civil protest to be an act of undue outside foreign influences. Given the controversies surrounding fraud in the ballot box, the public's trust has been damaged and the Islamic Republic is choosing a dangerously provocative path where it would expose itself for the repressive state it truly is.

Even as I express my solidarity for those seeking change in Iran, I continue to fear for their safety. Clearly, as the grotesque video of Neda being gunned down by riot police and the barrage of the Twitter messages suggest, they have no illusions about the bullets and gun barrels they are up against.

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