Turkey’s Turning Point
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In their response to my article, “Tehran Takedown,” James Dobbins and Alireza Nader agree with my assertion that supporting democracy in Iran would be a good thing. But they are not optimistic about the Iranian opposition’s chances for success, or very ambitious in their suggestions for U.S. policy. Indeed, they write that “almost the only . . . concrete thing” the United States can do is “support those transitions already underway” in the Middle East. Dobbins and Nader hope that Iranians will simply emulate the successful uprisings of the Arab Spring.
Certainly, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s fall from power would be a tremendous blow to the Iranian regime. And perhaps Iranians would take the opportunity to rise up. But the other cases are less clear. Iranians hardly need others -- whatever their religious or political convictions -- to convince them that they would be better off without the Islamic Republic. In my experience, most of those who oppose the regime believe that their own 2009–10 Green uprising was the inspiration for the Arab Spring.
Regarding the Green Movement, Dobbins and Nader repeat the conventional wisdom that I criticized, for example, in their claims that the two main leaders of the Green Movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, want to preserve the Islamic Republic with minor reforms. Mousavi’s published statements and the opposition leaders’ 2009 message to the Obama administration strike against the very idea of a theocratic state. “Religion, by the will of the Iranian people,” the message stated, “has to be separated from the state.”
Mousavi has said that the key to understanding him is a book called The Right to Heresy, which is a ringing defense of a sixteenth-century religious scholar who criticized the execution -- for heresy -- of a critic of John Calvin. The Iranian regime famously executes its own critics for heresy. Mousavi sees his own criticism of the Islamic Republic in the same context. Similarly, his wife’s public blessing of any woman who wishes to uncover her head suggests a government under his leadership would move beyond the misogynistic rule of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s regime.
Supporting the Green Movement and its leaders, who have been held in isolation for over a year and a half, should be a key component of U.S. policy toward Iran. Other antigovernment groups and individuals also deserve Washington’s support, including student and women’s organizations, dissident clerics and ayatollahs, and leading writers, lawyers, and filmmakers. As I wrote in my article, there are tangible things that the United States can do to help. U.S. leaders, starting with the president, should call for the end of the regime, and the United States should broadcast unbiased news about Iran to the Iranian people, demand the release of political prisoners, and help the Iranian people communicate with one another. As the United States did so successfully in the case of Poland during the Cold War, it should enlist international trade unions to build a strike fund for Iranian workers and perhaps provide other kinds of economic and technological support.
Dobbins and Nader’s call for the United States to decry the brutality of the regime and then stand back is welcome, but it is a conscience balm, not a serious policy. Like those who challenged the Soviet Union, the Iranian dissidents will tell us what they need and how they wish to receive it. But as in the Soviet case, the United States must begin with a clear statement of its commitment to its cause -- regime change.