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The Iran You Don't Know

The Iran You Don't Know

American views of Iran are distorted by the countries' shared political history. Roya Hakakian spoke with American Purpose on Iran’s youth and her country's freedom protests.

Roya Hakakian

American Purpose: We have the impression that many commentators are dismissive of the protest movement in Iran. If true, where is this coming from? Are we witnessing a revolution in Iran?

Roya Hakakian: There's a certain reluctance among both American politicians and intelligentsia to recognize what is happening in Iran as a major seismic shift in Iran's civil society, even though it is, by far, the most serious anti-regime movement since the 1979 revolution.

Several reasons might explain why this is: on one hand, the U.S. has been so singularly focused on the nuclear issue that it has not planned for any other contingency. For over ten years, the only possibility to curb a nuclear Iran has been to reach an agreement with an unreliable regime. No one seems to have planned for any other scenario, which could upend the dangerous regime that is dead-set on gaining nuclear capability. The greatest irony about this blind-sidedness on the part of the U.S. is that it is precisely a repeat of the mistake the U.S. had made vis-a-vis Iran prior to 1979. It refused to see that there was dissent against the former king, and was completely caught by surprise when the cataclysm did occur.

The other reason may well be the 40-year skewed coverage of Iran. Most of what we've heard over the last four decades has been that Iranians are devout Shiites who hate America and the West. All the subterranean shifts that occurred during this time have remained obscure from our view, most importantly the rise of a young, global-minded generation who wishes to live what they call a "normal life." These youths are only physically in Iran. In every other way, they are the citizens of a global digital community whose values and lifestyles are the very values and lifestyles they wish to follow.

Lastly, recognizing what is happening in Iran as something truly historic and potentially transformative would require that we, as Americans, begin to act, and seriously so. Acting is hard work. Human beings, especially the political kind, always wish to postpone hard work as much as possible.

AP: Both in the U.S. and across Europe we’ve seen an outpouring of support for Ukraine. In comparison, support for Iran remains tepid. Why is this and how do we change the situation?

RH: Ukrainians have come under military attack by an enemy that we have long known. The U.S. and Russia, in its former incarnation as the Soviet Union, have feared each other for decades, and Putin is a much easier man to identify as a dangerous global menace. Besides, the brutality and violence of the Russian military—the evidence of which is accessible thanks to the presence of media in Ukraine—makes the highly compelling events unfolding in Ukraine the global concern that it has deservedly become.

Iran is a far more complicated matter. The longstanding censorship the regime has imposed does not allow journalists to report on events. As if that were not bad enough, the internet, too, is at the mercy of the regime. It flows when they allow it, and it doesn't when they choose to cut it off. Most of what we know about what is happening are from the citizen reports that filter through social media.

The worst violations that are happening are happening out of sight, in prisons and detention centers. Russia and Iran, having triumphantly emerged as the terminator team that put an end to the Syrian uprising, are using the same playbook in dealing with Ukrainians and Iranians. It is a policy of maximum brutality that both are applying in order to terrify those who resist into silence.

To most Americans, it is clear who is to blame for the war in Ukraine. But when it comes to Iran, placing the blame becomes more complicated. For many years, it has been U.S. sanctions and policies that many experts have identified as the culprit behind the disenchantment of Iranians. And given their unfortunate narcissism, many Americans have assumed their own government to be the cause of Iran's ills, not the corruption of Iran's government, the rampant inequalities that exist, or the nature of Iran's tyrannical regime. There are still voices that are calling for the lifting of sanctions as a measure to quell the protests, and the fact that the protesters have not once in the past eight weeks voiced any economic demands does not seem to sway such views. But anyone who wishes to truly grasp Iran's political predicament at the moment needs to first eliminate America from the equation. There are only two contenders in this faceoff: Iranians and the mullahs.

AP: You’ve written that the struggles for freedom in Iran and Ukraine have a good deal in common. Anti-regime protests are now mounting in China. Can you tell us about commonalities and distinctions?

RH: If you had asked me in July 2021 if the Iranians would rise against their regime, I'd have said impossible. The tragic departure of the U.S. from Afghanistan sent shockwaves through the region. The thought that after 20 years the Afghans were once again under the rule of the Taliban made it seem that not only Afghans, but the region, was fated to never know freedom and civil society. Then came February 2022 and the valorous Ukrainians. I will never forget a tweet by an Afghan activist after Zelenskyy had refused to leave Kyiv. It read, "If only our president had done the same." Ukrainians didn't just inspire Iranians. They showed how valor could subdue fear. While Afghans seemed to be ruefully looking at Ukrainians fight and reflecting on the choices they made, Iranians quickly recognized that a Ukrainian victory against Vladimir Putin, Iran's most staunch ally, would be a major blow to Tehran. Call it revolutionary synergy, but Iranians saw that with Russia at war, and thus weakened and vulnerable, the time was ripe to strike against their own regime. Ukrainians and Iranians understand that they are bonded in the misfortune of having a shared enemy. Both nations understand their kinship, which is why Ukrainians and Iranians have held many joint demonstrations in diaspora.

Meanwhile, the Chinese, too, have risen up in the last few days and there is footage of them chanting slogans of solidarity with the protesters in Iran. Revolutionary synergy seems to have far greater reach in a digital age. It seems to me that this is an exceptional moment for the democratic world to help strengthen the cause of democracy elsewhere. Not just for the sake of faraway nations, but for its own sake. A more democratic world is a safer world.‌‌‌‌

AP: How can the U.S. help freedom-loving Iranians?

RH: The greatest first step the U.S. can take is to recognize that there is an alternative to curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions: regime change.

These two words have become anathema in Washington—the political equivalent to Voldemort. They can't be spoken without everyone suddenly going silent and visibly shrinking. It is amazing that the lesson so many Americans have taken from the wrong actions of the past is to choose inaction. History has shown us that inaction can be as damaging as wrong action, and a sin equally as great. When I met with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in October, I mentioned that the demonstrations were meant to bring about regime change in Iran. But I also said that the U.S. needn't worry because Iranians were determined to do the job themselves.

If the U.S. can get over the guilt of its past meddling, the moment in Iran is a historic opportunity not to be lost. Unlike in Las Vegas, what happens in Iran will not stay in Iran. The destiny of the people of Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Palestine, and Venezuela will instantly change. Subsequently, the destinies of the rest of us will follow suit. Several think tanks have put forth their recommendations for what the U.S. ought to do: access to the internet is essential for the demonstrators. Every manner of international pressure—from the EU to the U.S.—must be exerted to hold the regime accountable for the violence it has and continues to commit. The one specific action that I would like to see the U.S. take, not only as an Iranian expat but as a U.S. citizen—is the barring of travel for the regime's elite to the U.S. and the seizure of their assets in this country. This will put them on notice since so many of their families are in this country. I believe their presence makes the U.S. unsafe. They cannot be allowed to commit crimes in one country and lead their lavish lives in the U.S., Canada, and the EU, too.

AP: How concerned are you that the end of the clerical regime will create a power vacuum filled with factional fighting and violence? Can we hasten the demise of the regime and help plan now for a stable, decent, accountable government?

RH: If the last eight weeks are any guide, factional infighting should not be what we most fear. In an unprecedented show of solidarity, Iranians of all ethnic stripes have joined together to speak with one voice against the regime. It's so moving to see the Iranian Baluchis chant, "Kurdistan is the light of our nation." And the Kurds return the same sentiment for their fellow Azeris and others. The sooner the U.S., Canada, and the EU act to help the protesters and lessen the costs and the trauma for the nation, the likelier a smooth transition will be.

Roya Hakakian is a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, a writer, and a human rights activist. She is a founding member of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center and author of two collections of poetry in Persian. Her opinion columns, essays, and book reviews appear in English-language publications like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

Image: Members of the Iranian-American community demonstrate outside of the U.S. Capitol, December 1, 2022 (Iran Freedom Network)

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