Strong opinions, weakly held

On the Iranian protests

Like many, I’ve been obsessively following the news out of Iran since the elections last Friday. What I haven’t done is cheer on the protesters in Iran.

First, let me say that I wish for Iranians what I wish for everyone — a government that is accountable to the people and that protects the rights of all its citizens. And I hope that they can put a decent, democratic government in place with as little bloodshed as possible. Regardless of whether or not the election was rigged, the actions of the Iranian government since the election have been those of the authoritarian dictatorship. The Iranian government lacks the legitimacy in the eyes of its people to conduct a fair election, and that’s true regardless of the real vote totals, which are unlikely to ever be known.

But here’s the thing. Nobody who’s not in Iran can ask a single thing of the protesters in Iran. I have difficulty even offering them encouragement. In 1953, the Shah of Iran was kept in power by a military coup openly backed by the United States and United Kingdom. In 1979, Iran became an Islamic Republic by way of a popular revolution. The chaos that followed led to the Iraq to invade Iran — leading to a war that lasted most of the eighties and resulted in the deaths of over 1 million Iranians. The United States openly backed the Iraqis in that war. And now, thirty years after the revolution that led to the Islamic Republic, Iran is in the same place as it was in 1978, with an authoritarian leader attempting to put down a popular uprising through the use of violence and brutality.

Every Iranian has to make a personal choice about whether or not they’re going to take to the streets to demand a better government. They must know the real risk being beaten, arrested, disappeared, or killed. If these protests fail, the people who are identified as having participated are likely to be discriminated against in every way possible until some other effort to change the regime succeeds. What right do I, or any non-Iranian, have to encourage people to take such risks? The Iranians who did so in 1978 must surely look back now and see that that the revolution was a failure in terms of improving the lives of their fellow countrymen. Today’s government is as bad as the government they deposed back then. There’s no guarantee that the next government will be any better.

The only question left is which side will blink. Either the government will lose so much support that it can’t sustain itself, or it will commit enough barbaric acts to stop the protests. The only thing we can do is promise to watch what happens and to remember.

The twentieth anniversary of the brutal crackdown on the Tienanmen Square protests passed just two weeks ago. The Communist Party is still in charge in China, and last year they played hosts to the world in the Summer Olympics. That’s what the support of Americans amounted to then.

So I hope for the best for the Iranian people, and I deeply respect the risks that everyday Iranians are taking in an effort to change their country for the better. But I also understand that it’s all about them, not about us.


  1. well said Rafe. thank you.

  2. re: China;

    The Communist party is still in charge, true. However, Chinese have an extreme form of cognitive dissonance going on vis-a-vis Tienanmen Square.

    The party forbids any remembrance of the event (textbooks and media are not-so-surprisingly silent on reporting any of the historical events of that day), however every year they beef up security and crack down on any who might remember the event That Doesn’t Exist.


  3. In general, a thoughtful and judicious post. You could have gone further and indicated how appropriate or inappropriate you considered President Obama’s position has been up to this date. I find the President’s position to be spot-on.

  4. I think Obama’s response has been appropriate. Focus on the rights of the people in general and not on Iranian politics.

  5. I thought the President’s written statement today was exactly right:


  6. A few points: firstly, it matters what Americans pay attention to. Americans drive the world agenda to a far greater degree than they understand. Foreign news coverage is dominated by discussions of what Americans are doing or what Americans think. The rest of the world knows full well that the US is militarily and economically dominant, and that what it decides matters. And it’s not just American power that they respect, but they truly do see America as the beacon of freedom – I feel I can say this unironically, since I am not (yet) an American myself – which does not mean they do not understand how America has sometimes hurt them, but that America is proof positive that the lies they are told by their autocratic leaders (and an enormous percentage of the world’s population lives under such leaders) about their being better off without freedom is so much bullshit; that there is justice in this world and not just maybe in the next one; that it is possible to have a democracy and sustain it, to have free expression and remain one country, to live free on this Earth as god intended and not under the thumb of some asshole dictator. So the world loves America, admires it, imitates it; and our blessing gives hope for justice for people who live in despair. It matters. In Iran, it matters that they know that the world is watching them; that someone else cares for them and their cause. It matters a great deal that they see that Americans respect them as human beings, and do not just see them as terrorists and religious opponents. It really, really matters. So who are you to encourage them? You are the person they are asking to encourage them, that they are talking to on Twitter, hoping to hear a reply from you and know that they’re not alone in this.

    And norms also matter. If the US says it is okay to mistreat your people, that it’s none of our business, you can sure as hell bet that a lot of people in a lot of countries are going to suffer a lot more in consequence, maybe in private, maybe not on our TV screens, but they’re personally going to suffer, much more than anyone is suffering on the streets of Iran, you better believe it. Not only that, but if we ignore it in other countries, they will ignore it in us, and our own government will mistreat us. We stand together against oppression or we don’t stand at all. Period. That is how it has always been and always will be. Without solidarity governments feel free to crush their people. Well, that’s not the world I am going to live in. No way.

    But that does NOT mean an official US government response beyond what Obama has already done. He has done an incredible job of treading that fine line, on one side of which is despair that nobody in the world cares for their plight, that we will continue to deal with their dictators, indifferent to their suffering; on the other side of which is giving a way to pin this on foreign interference. His quote from MLK was on the spot: it is, if you like, a coded message, in that it gives comfort to those who are oppressed by quoting someone who gave his own life to oppose it – and gifted us with an America that is infinitely better than it would have been without the Civil Rights Movement – without appearing to be partisan. Obama said he supports justice and that violence against a country’s own citizens is wrong. That’s all he needs to say. America should indeed speak softly and carry a big stick. Obama is speaking softly, but he’s the President of the United States; he doesn’t have to speak loudly, because the world hears every word that he says.

    As for the coups and past misbehaviour, and the British Empire, and other foreign interference: I didn’t do any of that. I woudn’t do any of that. I am sorry that our countries did that to them, but I did not do it, I am not the oppressor, I am not even from the part of society that benefited from the products of that oppression and I reject entirely the idea that I am responsible or personally answerable for what some men now long dead did to some other people under my flag. We speak for ourselves, not for the fools that have sometimes preceded us, and we should not be afraid to tell the truth. I believe freedom is worth dying for, and if I am asked that – and all the cries for help that are coming from Iran are asking that, everything that is ever posted in English on Twitter are asking that – I am going to say, yes, it is worth the risk, yes, we are your friends, yes, we stand with you. It matters. Who are you to encourage them? You are someone who knows the value of freedom; you are a voter in the world’s most powerful democracy. You are the most qualified person to answer this question they are asking, and what you think matters to them, whether you stand with them matters, in purely practical terms of whether or not you plan to bomb the crap out of them or not if nothing else. So that is who you are. You’re someone who should say, it is worth it.

    Making Light has a banner that says: “Say what you mean. Bear witness. Iterate.” I take that to heart. There is another quote on this, a cliche: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” It is a cliche because it is true – in Iran, and everywhere else. Burke may never have said it, but he did say something similar that is even closer to the point here: “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”

    Believe me, it matters to Iranians what we think, and whether we care that they are dying in the street. They are asking for our personal, individual support, if you don’t believe that to be the case you are not reading what they are saying; read #iranelection for a while. They don’t want us to invade. They want us to reassure them. They want what all people in desperate fear want: the knowledge that they have friends who support them. The least we can do is offer it to them – to bear witness, to tell them the truth, that we believe freedom is worth dying for, that they can have a just and free society – but that they will never have it without risking their lives. That is the truth as I know it and I am not going to lie to them.

    There have been truly unjust governments in this world, and failing to oppose them has never made things better. I believe Iran’s present government is not near the worst, but that it has proven this week that it is unjust and that it is not going to get any better if left alone. Unjust governments exist on a downward spiral, and at the end of that spiral are concentration camps & mass graves in the woods. It is absolutely inevitable. You can oppose it, or one day you or your children will be standing in the woods next to a pit full of corpses – and whether you are the one holding the gun, or the one it is pointed at, you are going to dearly wish you had taken the risk of standing in the street earlier, before you had to despair for your soul and for the human race as a whole. I’d rather be dead protesting than dead as an unperson; I’d rather be dead than be the one pulling the trigger because I am such a coward.

    I believe that to be the truth. And when asked, I am going to tell it. I don’t think it is preening, or arrogance, or self-congratulation to say that. I don’t think I am self-serving in saying it. I am not saying it to support an invasion of another country, or to justify torture, or to explain away economic exploitation. It is embarrassing to say some of those things because of the past misuse of them, but if the alternative is tyranny and what that leads to, and I believe that is the alternative, well then I am going to say them anyway.

    You bring up Tiananmen, but I do not believe those people died and suffered in vain. They didn’t win everything they wanted, and China is still not a free place, but I believe it is far freer than it would have been had they not been shown the power of mass gatherings then. I can’t speak for the people that died, and the truth is that it requires a viewpoint we can never have, but I hope that they would feel that what they did had results that were worth what they did, and I hope that in the long run, they will have been an important step in the freeing of China.

    So the truth is also that it is only those people in Iran who can do this. It is their struggle and if they succeed it will be their triumph, not ours. But the least we can do, as people, not even as Americans, just as people, is to tell them we care about them, we hear them, that we feel the injustice too when a daughter of theirs dies in the street.

    That’s what I think. So I’m saying it.

  7. Apologies for the long comment. I probably repeated myself. But I am seeing Americans say “Hey, why should I say anything?” and while I understand why they say it, I think they are dead wrong. The US does not need to issue an official statement. The words of its citizens are worth far more.

  8. Rafe, thanks for the history lesson. There is no doubt that US foreign policy has really made a mess of things in that part of the country.

    I hope and pray for the people of Iran to know the freedoms we enjoy. There isn’t much else I can do.

  9. Thanks for the thoughtful and passionate post, Jacob.

    I don’t think there’s too much distance between us in the end.

  10. No, I don’t think so either. I completely agree that this is all about the Iranians, and not us. At a state level, I think we should be very cautious. But at a personal level I don’t think we should hesitate – assuming of course we feel this way – to say that we are with them in spirit, that we speak from experience in saying that freedom and self-determination are worthwhile, and that we have compassion for their losses.

    The French so appreciated our support that they gave us the Statue of Liberty. Britain is America’s closest ally because of the support given to her during WWII and the Cold War. The return on investment from friendship and support given in times of need should not be underestimated. That doesn’t mean we should invade everywhere, or embarrass ourselves and undermine diplomacy by insulting despots in public at a national level. But we shouldn’t forget either that change is possible in the world, and that the line about the oppressed people of the world yearning to be free is a romantic cliche but is also entirely true. That’s all.

  11. Hi, I don’t get you people. I think the article, yet again shows a total lack of understanding of the Middle East, with a tinge of white supremacist attitude thrown in.

    What proof is there that there has been voting irregularities? You have the same inconsistencies as the BBC, who’s reporter advised that Mousavi had made an official complaint of voting irregularities. But why did he wait for a few days and then put the complaint in? If he was shouting about vote rigging and a ‘stolen’ election, why did he not say it straight away? Why is he hiding away behind his wife? People are dying in support of him, yet he won’t come out and join them on the streets.

    Your third paragraph Rafe has confused me. You acknowledge that the Shah was openly backed by the West; you compare Ahmedinajd to the Shah, ” Iran is in the same place as it was in 1978, with an authoritarian leader attempting to put down a popular uprising through the use of violence and brutality.”

    So is Ahemdinajad same as the Shah? Does he have the backing of the West? I doubt that very much after his constant attacks on them. And if the American government was supporting the Shah, doesn’t that show that maybe they are now supporting Mousavi, like they have always been trying to topple the theocratic rulers? Please read the following article: http://www.thetruthseeker.co.uk/article.asp?ID=10935.

    This is written by a well respected and known former American politician, who is very objective and just pointing out the facts. If you search online, you will see that Mousavi, played a dirty tactic he declared a win for himself way before the votes were complete. I have heard, that Ahmedinajad won elections where it was impossible as these areas were a Mousavi stronghold. Yet no where online have I seen proof of this.

    Rafe, you know nothing of Iranian politics at all. The Shah was a dictator because he was in total control. However, Ahmedinajad is the President of Iran, but total control is in the hand of the Ayatollahs. Is there a reason why you never even put anyone’s name down? Were you afraid that you would mis-spell a name, because the people involved don’t have names like Smith, or Jones?

    Mousavi, is more closely linked to the Ayatollahs than Ahmedinajad, as he was involved in the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The latter is in constant verbal and emotional struggles with them, especially after making new reforms and allowances for women and the youth. Have these been forgotten? The same BBC reported Ahmedinajad as being the people’s leader, a man respected and loved, now he is a dictator? As explained previously, unfortunately he can’t be.

    These same dirty politics have been played out before. Lest we already forget the Bush vs Gore election? Now don’t insult me, yourself and God and say that was a fair election. But, its ok lets call in a ‘black’ man to do us all a favour and help us forget the last eight years of brutality and inhumanity our nation has spread amongst the world in our name.

    I believe myself to be someone who is open-minded and up-to date on historical and current affairs and I never heard of Mousavi being a serious contender. How do I know that? Well I was watching the news, on ITV and BBC (not obviously at the same time) and both reporters never gave Mousavi a chance.

    Finally, if you think that Mousavi is popular and that people want a strong change as they did in 1979, then think again. Explain to me then why has Ahmedinajad not been toppled? With all the backing of the West and the stronghold the Shah had, it was destroyed by the people. Why because it was over 90% or so that wanted change in Iran. If the people actually want it, they will fight for it. I highly repect the Iranians and believe in themas being one of the greatest people on Earth. In 1979, the people fought al over the country – now all you see is a handful of protestors in Tehran.

    I think we in the West have to grow up and face facts that we have helped destroy and dehumanise a locality and its people, who in history have done nothing more that give their riches to the world.

  12. First, I’m comparing Khameinei to the Shah, not Ahemdinajad. And I compare them not based on who their foreign supporters are but rather in the sense that they are both willing to use violence to quell dissent and maintain their power. Ahemdinajad is not particularly important.

    I’d also add that I don’t care much one way or another about Mousavi. I certainly would not claim that Mousavi is the real winner. However, it is indisputable that the election was not legitimate in the eyes of a large number of the Iranian people. I’m not going to bother detailing the reasons why that might be the case here. What I do care about is that Iranians who want free and fair elections and want more freedom, period see their aspirations satisfied.

    You can choose to believe that the demonstrations in Iran are secretly coordinated by the CIA. I do not.

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