The sight of tens of thousands of people in Iran pouring out into the streets to protest a repressive regime, braving arrest and even death as security forces fire on the crowds, has been riveting at a time when inspiring news is rare. Women in particular have been in the forefront of the protests, often ripping off their hijabs as a sign of defiance. But what does it all mean — and what should the Western response be?
President Donald Trump won rare plaudits from some of his usual harsh critics, such as New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, by tweeting his support for “peaceful protests by Iranian citizens” and urging the Iranian government to respect its people’s rights. Cohen contrasts this approach to that of the Obama White House, which remained largely silent in 2009 when the Islamist regime headed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei crushed the pro-reform uprising sparked by election fraud. Meanwhile, former Obama administration official Phil Gordon writes in the Times that the best thing Trump can do for the protesters is “keep quiet,” since they can gain nothing from being championed by an American president who strongly supports Iran’s foreign enemies — Saudi Arabia and Israel — and opposes the nuclear deal that lifted the sanctions on the country.
The flaw in Gordon’s reasoning is evident when he says Trump’s positions actually give Iranians an incentive to rally around the ruling regime. Clearly, no such rallying has happened, given that we are seeing a massive outpouring of discontent.
That said, Trump is indeed — to put it mildly — not the ideal president to speak to the protests in Iran, for the simple reason that his words lack all moral authority. To be sure, no one expects the U.S. president to be a saint; but a certain level of dignity, at least, is required. When words of support for the protesters come from the same Twitter account that the president uses for crude personal attacks on his enemies, the impact of those words is vastly diminished. Indeed, Trump’s championship of human rights in Iran was quickly interrupted by an unseemly squabble over his former strategist’s comments in a tell-all book.
But if Trump does not deserve much credit for saying the right thing, there are many whose silence deserves criticism. Countries quick to condemn Israel’s treatment of Palestinians have had nothing to say about the violence in Iran, where more than a thousand protesters have been arrested and more than 20 killed. Reactions from American liberals have been muted as well (Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, is a notable exception). The silence of feminists is especially notable, given the degree to which women’s anger at their oppression — including mandatory veiling — seems to be driving Iran’s protests.
The causes of Iranians’ discontent are complicated. Partly, they are economic — and ironically linked to rising expectations based on the nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions, changes that have failed to deliver prosperity. Anger at corruption is also a factor. But so is the yearning for freedom, rights, and personal dignity.
After the fall of Communism and the Arab Spring, neither of which worked out quite the way freedom lovers hoped, it is perhaps natural to be wary about the protests in Iran: if the reformers succeeded in toppling the mullahs’ regime, the eventual outcome would be highly uncertain. And yet this moment of rebellion should be appreciated for what it is. The fight for freedom at great personal risk should be a moment of moral clarity.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.