Stanford University’s motto is die Luft der Freiheit weht – the wind of freedom blows – and is amazingly heartening to see the people of Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and now Iran, shoving back against governments that have disrespected them. The winds of freedom are finally blowing in the Middle East, and undemocratic governments are nervous.
None moreso than the government of Iran, which turned out 10,000 security police to intimidate protesters yesterday. The Iranian opposition shrewdly capitalized on Ayatollah Khameni’s support for protests in Egypt to claim Iranians were gathering to show solidarity – the protests would otherwise be illegal in Iran. Despite government harassment, the opposition drew crowds in Tehran, Isfahan, Mashhad, and other cities. Security forces
It is easier to encourage the overthrow of the Iranian regime than any other in the region. Iran’s government is not only repressive at home, but has been virulently anti-American for 30 years. It arms, trains, and funds the terrorist organizations Hezbollah and Hamas, which have brought the intimidation of violence into politics in Lebanon and Palestine, and done harm to Israel. Iran’s nuclear program is causing fear throughout the Middle East, and about to set off a serial proliferation that will dramatically worsen security of all countries in the region. Hard to imagine a government coming to power in Iran that would be worse for us, so there’s no need to balance our interest in states that work with us.
Which makes it all the more disappointing that Iranians are unlikely to achieve a change in their government. By contrast to Tunisia and Egypt, the Iranian government is more ruthless and less likely to be abandoned by its military. While the 2009 elections badly damanged both the religious and political legitimacy of the Iranian regime, they have made no concessions to the protest movement in the nearly two years since. As Abbas Milani argues in his book about the fall of the Shah, the lesson the Iranian leadership likely took from the Shah’s fall is that he should not have ceded ground to the protestors. The Ahmadinejad government didn’t hesitate to imprison thousands in the aftermath of the elections, and while torture in captivity scandalized Iranians, the government didn’t disavow it. They continue to harass opposition leaders and their families. Iran’s military does not see itself as an independent force, a guardian of the nation, in the way Egypt’s does, and it has anyway been bought off with preferential opportunities.
All of this suggests that Iranian protestors are at greater risk than those in Tunisia and Egypt, which makes them all the more deserving of our respect and support.