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Iran’s Opposition Comes to Washington

"We are all Iranians now."

9:00 AM, Jan 25, 2010 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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On Saturday, January 23, the Iranian opposition community from the environs of the nation’s capital gathered in a George Washington University auditorium.   They were drawn to a ceremony that imported the idiom, if not the total experience, of the Green Movement against clerical tyranny in their native country.

The event, described as a seminar on “Ethics and Politics,” and sponsored by GWU’s Persian-speaking students, was primarily a memorial for the late Ayatollah Hosein Ali Montazeri, who in his time was the leading critic, inside the country, of the Islamist dictatorship in Tehran. Montazeri, who died last month, was eulogized eloquently by Reuel Marc Gerecht in THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

The GWU auditorium was filled to capacity with audience members, totaling about 300, spilling out into the corridor.  Participants, who seemed to keep coming endlessly, included young and old, mostly appearing middle class and assimilated to American customs.  Only a couple of women wore hijab, the Islamic head-covering.  As we waited for speeches to begin, I felt a powerful surge of recognition as videos from the mass protests in Iran were projected on a screen behind the stage.  They were all too familiar – the massed marchers, young women flashing the V-for-victory sign, police and thugs beating people in and around opposition rallies, some of the latter victims shown with gunshot wounds. 

I have attended dozens of such events, in numerous countries, over the past 50 years, beginning with sessions honoring the American civil rights movement, then the Latin American and Spanish left.  Afterwards, as my life and attitudes changed, I watched the same images projected by the people power movement in the Philippines, the Nicaraguan anti-Communist contras, Polish Solidarity, the Chinese democracy adherents in 1989, opponents of Serbian imperialism in the former Yugoslavia, and, more recently, Kosovar Albanians critical of European community rule in their republic.   There are some things that never change, and one of them is the iconography of social upheaval.   The shining eyes, the determined mien, the sense of voices finally breaking through years of silence, the blow of a fascist thug’s club against the slender figure, barely a shadow, of a young woman, the fallen, blood-covered bodies of those attacked, the rush of a group of fellow-activists carrying an injured companion in search of medical care – they are always the same.  Only their destinies differ.  Some heroes have won, and some who deserve victory have lost.

At one point in the program, spirited marching songs were replaced by the soundtrack of the 1992 American film Last of the Mohicans, which has become a surprisingly widespread anthem of courage.  The clips of brave dissidents, wounded but persistent, were again projected, followed by a video on the life of the 50s-era reformer Mohammed Mossadegh, but, perhaps intentionally, no pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini were shown.   A Farsi-language polling sheet was distributed, to measure attitudes toward the regime and its domestic antagonists.   The gesture was purely formal, as all who had come to GWU that day appeared to be of one mind.   

The seminar began with a long commentary on the significance of Montazeri’s life by a white-turbaned Iranian cleric, Mohsen Kadivar.  Once among Montazeri’s religious students, Kadivar then became an outspoken critic of clerical rule, and was imprisoned for his views.  He is now a visiting research professor at Duke University. He holds the title of hojatoleslam, a rank below that of ayatollah.   The audience paid intense attention to Kadivar and the other speakers, rewarding them with applause.  In the corridor outside, burning memorial candles and baklava and other sweets, with tea and coffee, waited. 

Understanding little Farsi, I without doubt missed most of the details of Kadivar’s sermon, although he has a fascinating and inspiring website with English translations.  His commentaries include reporting, in an interview with the German weekly Der Spiegel, that during Montazeri’s funeral in Qom, the clerical center of Iran, the hundreds of thousands of assembled mourners shouted “Death to the dictator! Our leader is our shame!” – words never before heard in that conservative city.  He continued, “I am convinced that the regime will collapse… Western countries should stop treating Ahmadinejad’s government as the legitimate government of Iran.”

Still, I did not need to check the Internet to understand the meaning of the GWU meeting.  The content was obvious from the videos and the Islamic vocabulary in praise of Montazeri, which is based on Arabic terminology known to any serious student of Middle East studies.  This point is paradoxical: The discourse of freedom struggles is universal, but opportunities for their success may be lost if their protagonists cannot convey the full import of their message to others, especially in America.   The words of Iran’s millions of dissenters must not remain locked in a Farsi-language box.   

It is no exaggeration to say that the future of the world depends on developments in Iran.  Thirty years after 1979, the year when the challenge of radical Islam as a state ideology emerged with new and menacing vigor in that country, the stolen election of 2009 may have begun a new cycle of global democratization.  Such might end radical dominance over Muslims, dispel the threat of terrorism, and create new opportunities for real dialogue between the Islamic lands and the West.  

But for so positive an outcome to be realized, the barriers of language between the Iranian Green Movement and those outside Iran who sympathize with them must be dissolved.   The indifference of the Obama administration to the Iranian struggle is scandalous enough.  But Washington is replete with democracy experts, veterans of the efforts to aid the contras and Polish Solidarity, proponents of Cuban and Chinese dissenters, and many other liberals and conservatives who may have nothing in common with the Green Movement but hatred for Khamenei and Ahmadinejad.   All these potential allies of the martyred Iranian people must come together, boldly and openly, to change the policy of the White House toward Iran, beginning with provision for the Washington-area partisans of Iranian liberty to present their case in English and in major media.  Most Iranians living in and around Washington speak perfect English.  Televised commentaries about Iran by cautious talking-heads are insufficient.

We must show the Iranian people that in America there are people – many people – who understand the global urgency of the political conflict in Iran, and who are prepared to act decisively in favor of universal popular sovereignty rather than an unprincipled, fake diplomacy that would appease the clerical usurpers.  Some will argue that open support for the Iranian opposition will serve the oppressive regime by validating the claims of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad that the resistance they face is instigated by the U.S. and Israel.  But it is clear that Iran’s new revolutionaries have surpassed any susceptibility to such obvious demagogy. 

I emphasize: Friends of democracy, the time has come to mobilize, to translate and circulate as widely as possible the writings and YouTube clips produced by the optimistic challengers of the Islamic Republic, with all the energy and resources we can muster.  With millions in that tormented country filling the streets with their demands for liberation, any other course would be a shameful and ineradicable stain on our democratic principles and heritage.  

Leaving the Montazeri memorial at GWU I felt deeply moved, and for the first time thought “we are all Iranians now.”   

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