In recent weeks, Iran has again been in the throes of an uprising. Signs of the regime change America had long hoped to see are on the horizon. In the unlikeliest cities — once the strongholds of the conservatives — Iranians have taken to the streets, demanding, not just reform, but a referendum.
A nationwide referendum in March 1979, in which over 90 percent of Iranians marked Islamic Republic as their choice of government, gave legitimacy to the current regime. Many Iranians now hope for a second referendum, which could give them a chance to undo the government they chose nearly 40 years ago. The restraint that the United States showed in refraining from military action against Iran was the right course when the threat of war loomed between the two nations. But while we must continue to avoid war at all costs, now that defenseless Iranians have taken to the streets, cautious silence is no longer the right approach.
A chorus of experts has been calling for the United States to do nothing. They argue that U.S. support for Iranian protests would weaken the hand of the reformists. These experts are out of step with the protesters, who have been chanting, “Reformists! Hardliners! The game’s over!” In other words, Washington still has its heart set on a possibility that Iranians have given up on.
This is not the first time Washington has been slow to grasp the reality on Iran’s streets. In December 1977, as the embers of an imminent revolution were beginning to burn, President Jimmy Carter made a toast to Iran’s monarch with these words, “Iran, because of the great leadership of the Shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.”
History has repeated itself and, by latching onto bygone hopes of reform, Washington’s analysts are misreading Iran once again. According to Shirin Ebadi, Iran’s Nobel Laureate, Hassan Rouhani’s second term was the last chance Iranians would offer the reformists. “Years ago, the people of Iran demanded reforms and believed in the reformists,” Ebadi told me in an interview, “When former president Mohammad Khatami told Iranians to vote for Hassan Rouhani, they flocked to the polls. But three years passed, and the reforms did not happen. This time, with the slogans they chant on the streets, the people are showing that they do not trust the reformists any longer. That’s why their demand has now shifted from reforms to referendum.”
Those who call for passivity on the part of the United States are also misreading how and why the reform movement was born in the first place. They advocate avoiding pressure on Tehran, assuming that stress of any kind would hamper the cause of democratic change. But if the history of post-revolutionary Iran is any guide, the opposite is in fact true.
Twice in recent decades, Iran has chosen reformist presidents: in 1997, when Mohammad Khatami took office, and in 2013, with the election of Hassan Rouhani. These two political facelifts were the result combined domestic and international pressure.
In early 1997, Mohammad Khatami’s odds of winning the presidency seemed dismal. He was badly behind in the polls and, compared to his politically-seasoned rivals, he was a mere freshman. His campaign floundered until the spring of that year, when his fortunes suddenly changed. In April, Khatami’s campaign got a proverbial shot in the arm when a German court issued a decision explicitly naming Iran’s leadership, including the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as the masterminds behind the assassination of four Iranian and Kurdish leaders nearly five years earlier. The judgment led to the most dramatic and forceful international action to date against Tehran when all EU member nations recalled their ambassadors.
Shunned by the European Union, Tehran had to find a way out of its isolation. Reflecting on the presidential elections of 1997, Khatami’s chief political strategist and the founding father of the reform movement, Saeed Hajjarian, said that the change in Iran’s political makeup, and the sudden embrace of Khatami’s candidacy by the clerical elite, were the result of decisions made by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. The gentle-mannered Khatami appealed equally to people who had grown wary of radicalism, and a leadership looking for a way to recast its image in the West.
In 2013, as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s second term in office drew to a close, Tehran found itself in a similar position. Under pressure from sanctions, discontent had reached a fever pitch. Both the nation’s morale and its economy had tanked. Rouhani’s first task as president was not so much to run the country as it was to be a polished interlocutor at the table with the P5+1 negotiators.
Once again a reformist was in office. Hopeful Iranians earnestly believed that, having gone to the polls and chosen the right candidate, freedom, economic justice, and civil liberties would follow. Hopeful Americans believed that, to help the cause of reform, the United States had to remain mum. The binary narrative of the moderates versus the hardliners had captured Western imaginations. Iran appeared to many to be a Manichean universe of good (the moderates) at war against evil (the hardliners). Iran’s suspenseful political drama had much of the world cheering the reformists, who always seemed to be on the brink of bringing positive change, but never quite achieved it. The protesters of recent days have been unequivocal: The two political forces that have long appeared to be at war are, in fact, two faces of the same demon — Tehran’s rendition of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Middle East experts often paint Iranians as an enigmatic people. Iranians are unlike Americans, to be sure. But with unemployment rates at over 30 percent, women and religious minorities treated as second-class citizens, rampant governmental corruption and no civil liberties, they are no different from any other nation that has ever rebelled against tyranny. In a country where women are relegated to the backs of buses and citizens receive unequal treatment in courts of law, Americans should pay less attention to pundits and, instead, follow the lessons of their own history.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s is a great guide. Today, America’s best Middle East expert is Dr. Martin Luther King, who said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Between war and inaction, there is much that America, and other nations with influence over Tehran, can do to prevent the Revolutionary Guards from future crackdowns against peaceful protesters. Demanding that Iran hold a nationwide referendum is, indeed, such an action.
The United States has every reason to do what it can to help Iran’s movement for economic justice and civil liberties. Just as the 1979 revolution uncorked the menace of fundamentalism that has since ravaged the region, authentic democratic change in Iran could pave the way for a brighter future in the Middle East.
Roya Hakakian is the author of two books of poetry in Persian and the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship in nonfiction. Her most recent book is “Assassins of the Turquoise Palace.” @royathewriter
The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.