In the New York Times today, Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett–both of whom I deeply respect–argue that the protesters in Iran make up a small, demographically isolated minority of Iranian society, and their activities therefore have very little chance of enacting real, substantive change in Iran’s political system. For evidence of the protest movement’s weakness, the authors pose three questions:
“First, what does this opposition want? Second, who leads it? Third, through what process will this opposition displace the government in Tehran?”
Needless to say, none of the potential answers proves satisfactory.
The Leveretts are entitled to their opinion, sacrilegious as it may be to some. But in downplaying and even denigrating the activities of Iran’s dissidents, I fear that they will have justified the accusations that are sure to be flung their way–accusations of acting as apologists for the government, of disparaging a courageous and non-violent protest movement, and even of siding with Iran’s violent regime.
I am reminded of the Letter from a Birmingham Jail—the famous essay by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in which he decries the so-called “white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice,” more concerned with the negative peace of the status quo than with bringing about that which is right through urgent action. By action, of course, Dr. King was talking about civil disobedience.
Like the “white moderate” in King’s letter, the Leveretts do not dare pin their hopes on seismic changes righting Iran’s political injustices. Instead, they recommend the US acknowledge the movement’s futility, embrace Iran’s current leaders, and secure America’s strategic interests through rapprochement. But their cynicism, which dismisses a popular movement without a manifesto, charismatic leader, or strategic playbook, ignores the plain and simple fact that repressive governments are inherently unsustainable.
People who have awoken to the dawn of a freer and more open society cannot be pushed backwards and kept permanently in darkness. Like Dr. King, the Iranians who take part in the protest movement–even if they are a minority–engage in civil disobedience in order to “bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive” in their society. Iranians have not always lived in fear of roaming militias or cyber-surveillance teams watching their every move online; nor have they been closed off to alternatives structures that value individual liberty over ideological fealty.
“Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever,” King said.
The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained.
In the case of Iranians, the “something within” is the long and arduous journey toward a democratic system of governance–a journey that began with the Constitutional Revolution in 1906, caught a fleeting glimpse of success with Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953, erupted chaotically in 1979, and has been brewing once again since June 12. The “something without” is their forebears: Gandhi, Mandela, King, and Walesa.
I agree with the Leveretts’ conclusion that Iran’s government is not about to crumble under the pressure of the protest movement. But I believe now more than ever before that democratic change in Iran is bound to occur eventually. The events of the past seven months have revealed a conflict embedded deep within Iran that will not go away. It might be suppressed for awhile, but it won’t be extinguished. The struggle for rights will continue, and, to paraphrase President Obama on the night of his election, the Iranian people will “put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.”