Stifling the Persian Spring

WE IRANIANS ARE a cynical, paranoid lot. Conspiracies are something of a sport for us. Whether it is the price of wheat or the threat of war, Iranians know nothing is exactly as it seems.

You can’t blame us; we’ve had our share of foreign meddling. Iran’s first attempt at democracy, which started in 1905, ended after troops commanded by Russian officers shelled the building in which the parliament was sitting; a second attempt, in 1953, was crushed by a CIA coup that reinstalled the country’s dictator, Muhammad Reza Shah. Iran’s third attempt at democracy, in 1979, was hijacked by the country’s own religious establishment, but only after Saddam Hussein launched a surprise attack a few months after the Shah was ousted.

But ask most Iranians who was responsible for thwarting the revolution of 1979 and they will point the finger not at Saddam Hussein or Ayatollah Khomeini, but at the United States. They have a point. After all, the U.S. encouraged Saddam to attack Iran, giving him satellite imagery and military intelligence. (Remember the famous photo of a smiling Saddam greeting Reagan administration special envoy Donald Rumsfeld?)

The U.S. government’s intention then was to curb the spread of Iran’s revolution, but it had the more disastrous effect of curbing its evolution. As happens in wartime, all the vibrant discussions in post-revolutionary Iran about how to build a new country came to an abrupt end the moment Saddam invaded. In the name of national security, power became centralized in the hands of the religious establishment. By the time that war came to an end eight years later, the dream that had spurred the revolution had given way to the reality of an authoritarian state plagued by gross ineptitude.

So you will have to forgive Iranians for viewing the latest round of threats from Israel and the U.S. as just another blundering Western action that threatens to destroy what’s left of the country’s struggling democracy movement.

The media is in a frenzy about a possible U.S./Israeli military strike on Iran’s suspected nuclear sites, even as a new round of sanctions against Iran’s central bank threaten to push inflation above 21 percent. Getting rid of nuclear weapons in the region is a laudable goal—but that would need to begin with the only Middle East country that currently has them, Israel.

The sanctions talk is hard for Iranians to swallow when they hear Sen. Mark Kirk, author of America’s sanctions bill, describe it as taking “food out of the mouths of [Iran’s] citizens,” or when neoconservative Iran experts such as Reuel Marc Gerecht and Mark Dubowitz argue that sanctions could lead to regime change via “a democratic counterrevolution in Persia.” Imagine what Iranians think when they hear Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggest, as The New York Times reported, that a “careful attack on [Iran’s] nuclear facilities” might be “welcomed by Iranian citizens.”

The message to Iran is clear: U.S. sanctions are meant to make Iranians suffer so badly that they will overthrow their government; those Iranians who do not support the regime should back an Israeli attack.

The implications in Iran are even clearer: If you are a democracy activist, you are on the side of the U.S. and Israel; if you are an advocate for reform, you support war against Iran.

The irony is that all this is coming at a time when the Iranian regime is more fractured and unstable than it has ever been. The conservative forces that united to crush the pro-democracy Green Movement in 2009 have now begun attacking each other. The parliament is threatening to impeach the president. The president is publicly distancing himself from the authority of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And the supreme leader has lately wondered aloud whether Iran even needs a president in the first place.

Among democracy activists in Iran, the glee over all this infighting can barely be contained. It appears that as soon as the regime stopped worrying about an external enemy, they began finding that enemy amongst themselves.

Which is why all the talk about an impending preemptive military attack by the United States and Israel has the democracy movement in Iran—already tarred with suspicion of being in league with those nations—worried.

Because the one thing Iranians have learned from a century of fighting for their rights is that nothing stifles freedom faster than war or the threat of war. It is a lesson U.S. policy makers need to learn as well.

Reza Aslan is founder of and the author of How to Win a Cosmic War. Born in Iran, he lives in Los Angeles, where he is associate professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside.

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