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Iran's Stolen Election Has Sparked an Uprising -- What Should the U.S. Do?

Can the United States speed the process for greater freedom in Iran? Yes. By staying out of the way as much as possible.

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Most Iranians were born after the bitter struggle against the tyrannical Shah and only a minority remember the bloody war with Iraq which followed, legacies on which the country’s leaders have tried to legitimize their rule. It no longer seems to be working.

In thousands of little ways – from satellite dishes hidden behind rooftop cisterns, to clandestine mixed social gatherings of unchaperoned young people, to women incrementally expanding the limits of what is considered acceptable apparel – small acts of resistance are undermining the authority of the regime. And such resistance is not coming just from affluent educated neighborhoods in North Tehran, but across classes and ethnicities and regions.

The Role of the United States

This raises the question: what can the United States do to speed the process for greater freedom in Iran?

The answer may be to stay out of the way as much as possible.

Despite claims by former President George W. Bush that the United States has always supported "liberty" and "democracy" in Iran, the history of U.S.-Iranian relations during both Republican and Democratic administrations has demonstrated very little support for a democratic Iran. In the early 1950s, the last time Iran had a democratic constitutional government, the United States joined Great Britain and other countries in imposing strict economic sanctions against Iran in response to the nationalization of the country's oil resources, which until then had been under foreign control. Taking advantage of the resulting economic collapse and political turmoil that followed, the CIA helped engineer a coup against Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and returned Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi from exile to rule with an iron fist.

Over the next 25 years, the United States armed and trained the Shah's dreaded SAVAK (Organization for National Security and Intelligence) secret police, which emerged as one of the most repressive internal security organizations of the era. Despite claims to the contrary by right-wing critics of the Carter administration, the United States strongly supported the Shah until his final days in power, providing valuable assistance to the regime even as it was massacring protestors in the streets. It comes as no surprise, in light of this history, that the revolution which finally ousted the monarchy in February 1979 was stridently anti-American. Furthermore, since the Shah's U.S.-trained and supplied repressive apparatus had largely succeeded in wiping out the democratic and secular opposition to the regime, it was religious opponents -- who survived as a result of the greater cohesion made possible through the mosques -- who spearheaded the revolutionary movement. Thus, the radical Islamist orientation of the revolution and the severe repression which has hallmarked clerical rule was a direct consequence of the Shah's U.S.-backed efforts to maintain control through repression.

Despite the severing of diplomatic relations in response to the hostage crisis, the United States clandestinely armed and provided other security assistance to the Iranian government during much of the 1980s, both to support the mujahidin fighters against the Communist regime and its Soviet backers in neighboring Afghanistan as well as to suppress leftist dissidents within Iran.

As a result of this history, most members of the democratic opposition in Iran do not take very seriously Washington's claims that it supports freedom for the Iranian people.

Ironically, recent years have witnessed repeated calls by American neoconservatives who, despite having shown little concern for human rights in much of the world (including Iran when it was under the allied regime of the Shah) insist that the United States must lead the way in bringing democracy to that country. Despite being a thinly-veiled excuse for setting up another puppet regime to ensure easier access to the country’s oil and natural gas resources, these supposed defenders of Iranian freedom have attacked the Obama administration for its apparently reluctance to pursue military options as well as for its interest in negotiating some kind of rapprochement with Iran regarding areas of mutual concern, such as Iraq, Afghanistan and nuclear non-proliferation.

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