Two years ago, when factions in the United States and its Jewish community were deep in the trenches fighting over the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal, it was taken as a given that deal or not, the Islamic fundamentalist regime that ruled in Tehran would be around for a long time. In power since the 1979 revolution, it had successfully stamped out protests surrounding the 2009 election of Hassan Rouhani as president and continued to rule its people with an iron fist.
In light of the new protests that sprung up in Tehran last week and have since spread to conservative towns in the periphery, the old assumption about the ruling clerics’ invincibility may not be as solid as once thought. Heading into Jan. 3, 21 people had been killed in the government-led crackdowns, but the protests — stretching into the sixth day and targeting everything from the price of basic foodstuffs to Iran’s support for Hezbollah and its military forays in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East — have shown no sign of abating.
Granted, by the time you read this, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — who in a statement blaming unnamed “enemies” for the unrest warned protesters that authorities knew who their leaders were — and his police forces may well have snuffed out this latest yearning for democratic and economic reforms. I’m not only hoping that that’s not the case, I’m betting that we’re in store for a lot more news coming out of the Islamic republic.
Which brings us to the question of what we in the United States can do about it. On Jan. 1, Mark Dubowitz and Daniel B. Shapiro took to Politico to argue that nothing less than a full-throated endorsement by American leaders of the protesters’ goals is required. They nodded approvingly at some of President Donald Trump’s tweets embracing the demonstrations and condemning the violent crackdown, and cautioned against politicizing the rapidly changing state of affairs.
That Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a vocal critic of the Iran nuclear deal, and Shapiro, who as the U.S. ambassador to Israel for President Barack Obama was tasked with being one the deal’s most ardent supporters, would come to agreement in print was itself remarkable. But even more astonishing was their call for common ground in a day and age when the political divide appears almost so wide as to permanently fracture the United States.
“Nuclear deal supporters and opponents should resist the urge to make this a ‘gotcha moment’ for people with whom they have tussled on Iran policy,” they wrote. “This undermines the cause of ensuring broad, bipartisan support for peaceful protests, and hopefully real political change.
“Let’s focus on the Iranian people and what the United States and our European allies can do to advance their aspirations, not our own political squabbles.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Just three days after the protests started, foreign policy analyst Lee Smith wrote in Tablet to decry a favored scapegoat among the right — the American media — as too ignorant to cover events in Iran. “American news audiences are starting to wonder why the U.S. media has devoted so little coverage to such dramatic — and possibly history-making — events,” he opined. “Ordinary people are taking their lives in their hands to voice their outrage at the crimes of an obscurantist regime that has repressed them since 1979, and which attacks and shoots them dead in the streets. So why aren’t the protests in Iran making headlines?”
For a straw man, it wasn’t that expertly contrived, considering that the Iran story has been in the news every day since it began, garnering headlines in such papers as The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Post and The New York Times. But Smith’s beef wasn’t so much with the lack of coverage as it was with what he considered a false narrative. News outlets, he said, pinned the blame for the protests on economics instead of on the quest for freedom, essentially recapitulating regime talking points and “pimping for the regime [by] requesting the West to wire more money, fast.”
Never mind that most revolutions in history have considerable economic underpinnings, from our own revolution in 1776 to the Islamic one in 1979. Smith ignores reality to score political points, exactly the opposite of what anyone who yearns for the fall of the Iranian leadership should be doing right now.
If the events of the last few days have taught us anything, it’s that the ruled still maintain an ability to push back against the ruling class, especially when a revolution is least expected. The United States should nurture those who are chafing against authoritarian rule and be ready to influence the events that would follow a collapse of Iran’s regime. Perhaps never before has American engagement in a region that has seen so much disengagement been as necessary as it is now.
Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at [email protected].