Professor Milani of Stanford contends:
Much has been written about the fact that Iran’s democratic movement today combines the three characteristics of a velvet revolution—nonviolent, nonutopian and populist in nature—with the nimble organizational skills and communication opportunities afforded by the Web. Less discussed has been the significance of the youthfulness and Internet-savvy nature of the Iranian population.
Seventy percent of Iranians are under the age of 30. And in a population of 75 million, 22 million are Internet users. In spite of the nominal leadership of reformists like Medhi Karroubi, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mohammad Khatami, the real leaders of the movement have been the thousands of groups and individuals who work autonomously, and whose structure replicates the Internet.
Until now, this lack of structure has given the movement its power. But the democratic movement has reached its own hour of reckoning.
As Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his cohorts come nearer to a crisis, as rifts within the regime deepen in coming weeks, as the regime ratchets up its ruthlessness against the democrats, and as the world, with anxious eyes on the nuclear issue, carefully watches the domestic situation in Iran, the democratic movement must develop a more coherent plan of action and a more disciplined leadership. And the world, particularly the West, must also let the regime know that it will not stand by idly as the people of Iran are brutalized by the regime.
To many in the outside world, the regime’s brashness—its willingness to murder peaceful demonstrators in broad daylight and its adventurism in the nuclear arena—have been shocking. But to the people of Iran, who have long suffered the consequences of the regime’s political despotism, its ideological sclerosis, and its economic incompetence and corruption, recent events are only egregious manifestations of what they have endured for three decades. It is the slow, sinister grind of this structural violence that has now turned nearly every strata of Iranian society—save those who owe their fortunes to the status quo—into the de facto foe of the regime.
These are moderate forces coming to overthrow the present regime that overthrew the regime prior to them. In terms of stability, and long-term stability, this might not be a good portent (as Milani points out at the end of his essay).
Regardless, the Iranian regime blames the West for meddling in its affairs. This is an odd strategy given the protesters on the streets feel like the west has been absent (Charles Krauthammer seems to imply the slogans asking Obama which side he is on implies the protesters think the U.S. is supporting the present regime)–it thus reinforces the lying inherent in the present regime to those in the streets.
What should be the foreign policy of the U.S. in regard to Iran? It is a difficult problem to choose prudently. Krauthammer (linked above) has his suggestions. Stephen Hayes is the most hawkish:
The president has signaled that his patience with Iranian intransigence will end with the close of 2009. It’s time for Obama to signal a dramatic change in strategy. Quickly and decisively after the New Year, he should do four things:
(1) Make clear that he is on the side of the Iranian opposition and will do everything he can to add to their strength.
(2) Enact the toughest possible sanctions on Iran–especially targeting refining capabilities–with broad international support if available, but with as many allies as will go along or unilaterally, if not.
(3) Make clear that he will be taking a zero tolerance view of Iranian support for terrorism, including the deliberate targeting of U.S. diplomatic and military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.
(4) Make clear that the use of force to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons isn’t off the table, and order the military to be ready to act should it become necessary.
Update: Milani has been making the rounds. Here is an excellent piece in the New Republic:
There are, arguably, strategic reasons for the United States to keep silent on the fate of the democratic movement. But history is not one of them. Rather, the regime’s version of events (past and present) is self-serving and, at critical junctures, altogether baseless. Documents (some recently declassified) from various U.S. archives show a rather different version of foreign policy toward Iran. The Shah may have been a U.S. ally in the cold war, but the relationship was fraught. Behind closed doors, the United States pushed hard for the country to democratize. During the periods when the United States failed to stand on the side of the Iranian people, it paid a horrible price. It is worth revisiting this history, not simply because it debunks the Manichaean theory of the past touted by the mullahs, but also because it contains important lessons for how the United States can navigate the current crisis in Iran.
* * *
The history of U.S. involvement in the country doesn’t make for a simple tale. On the one hand, the United States supported the Shah and helped him consolidate his regime. On the other hand, the United States quietly and persistently attempted to prod the Shah toward a more democratic system. The Americans helped the Shah create his dreaded secret police, the SAVAK, in 1957–and then, the next year, attempted to roll back his move toward authoritarianism. For the United States, these two objectives were not contradictory. Both the CIA and the State Department, which clearly preferred the Shah to any alternative, openly worried that the country would succumb to revolution absent substantial steps toward democracy.
This analysis, however, produced a state of constant tension between the Shah and the United States. During his weakest moments–particularly in the late 1950s and early ’60s–the Shah would nod his head in agreement when the Americans extolled democratization. For example, in 1958, the U.S. ambassador told the Shah he had to engage in preventive measures such as an anti-corruption campaign and “fireside chats” with the people of Iran. Not long after, a new anti-corruption law was passed and the Shah gave his first public press conference. But the Shah never made these gestures with any conviction. Social change, he believed, could only be imposed with an iron fist. When the Americans would make their demands, he had an array of tricks to change the subject. The Shah would invariably insist that the pressure to democratize would merely empower the communists. Moreover, the anti-corruption law soon faded from memory and was used only to settle grudges.
The Americans grew increasingly frustrated with his authoritarianism.
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And from NPR:
Update 2: The WaPo is also getting more hawkish:
There is, however, more that could be done to help the Green Movement. Russia and non-Western nations should be pressed to join in condemning the regime’s violence. Sanctions aimed at the Revolutionary Guard and its extensive business and financial network should be accelerated; action must not be delayed by months of haggling at the U.N. Security Council. More should be done, now, to facilitate Iranian use of the Internet for uncensored communication. The State Department continues to drag its feet on using money appropriated by Congress to fund firewall-busting operations and to deny support to groups with a proven record of success, like the Global Internet Freedom Consortium.
The administration has worried excessively that open U.S. support might damage the Green Movement. Now President Obama has publicly taken sides, and the battle inside Iran has reached a critical juncture. It’s time for the United States to do whatever it can, in public and covertly, to help those Iranians fighting for freedom.