President Obama should not speak in support of the Iranians protesting the recent presidential elections. In fact, no US official, in power or out of it, should publicly support them.
First, it’s redundant. Is there any doubt that anyone in Iran (much less, the world) knows whose side the Americans are on in this conflict? A diverse population, young and old, rich and poor, clergy and laity, Persian and Arab, male and female, are uniting in peaceful protest in the streets of Iran’s major cities, marching in silence against corruption and violence in their electoral system. The protests echo the footsteps on US-80 to Montgomery, and earlier ones to the sea at Dandi. It is a movement that is growing exponentially by the day, with almost 3 million people reported at rallies today to mourn those murdered by the Basij for participating. Is there even a chance that the world might question, especially in light of recent clashes with Ahmadenijad, what outcome American leaders favor?
Second, it would undermine the movement. The election wasn’t about American-Iranian relations. The protests don’t even represent a massive ideological divide in the Iranian electorate. As many commentators have observed, Mousavi’s policies aren’t dramatically dissimilar to those of Ahmadenijad. This movement is about political legitimacy. Iran is an illiberal democracy, a system with the trappings and functions of a democratic state but without the guaranteed civil rights and civil liberties necessary to maintain a true democracy. The Guardian Council decides who may or may not run for office, but the Iranian people expect that the elections themselves will be legitimately decided by the voters.
This election was obviously and audaciously rigged. The movement is a genuine, grassroots rejection of the results by the electorate. Already, the Iranian government is attempting to prove that the U.S. and Israel are behind the protests, to discredit this as genuine outrage on behalf of the citizens of Iran. We must not lend aid to that attempt at propaganda. We must not cut the legs out from under our brothers and sisters who refuse to be silenced. Our speech would silence them in their own country.
Third, it would endanger the protesters. Ahmadenijad was elected by the skin of his teeth in 2005. His popularity has declined as he failed to make good on any of his campaign promises. The only popularity he seems able to retain in the electorate is what he gets from being an outspoken opponent of the U.S. The more we oppose him, the more powerful he gets. Some analysts have even speculated that he would have no power at all in Iran if not for the Bush administration’s rhetoric. The rhetoric was intended to call him out, but some argue that it merely gave him legitimacy within the country (especially since U.S. statements rarely distinguished Ahmadenijad from the rest of Iran).
If President Obama speaks out against Ahmadenijad and the Supreme Leader’s decision to ignore the will of the people, he will only help those in power cling to it more desperately. It could allow the government to become more brutal in its attempts to suppress the protests, casting the violence in the language of struggle against U.S. imperialism. We must protect those who are willing to lay down their lives for freedom. Sometimes that means not saying things that make us feel better about ourselves.
What can we do instead? This is a time for the people of America to act on behalf of their leaders. If you’re not on twitter, sign up here. Follow #iranelection or #gr88 to find out what’s going on. Change your location to Tehran and your time zone to GMT +3.30 to help confuse Iranian authorities who are trying to arrest protesters. Visit this Guide to the Cyberwar site for more information on how to help (and not accidentally hurt) the Iranians’ fight for freedom.
And pray. As our own Rachel Motte so elegantly said, the sons of Isaac pray for the sons of Ishmael, for we all come from the same father. ‘