Lessons For the U.S. As the Iranian Revolution Unravels


Lessons For the U.S. As the Iranian Revolution Unravels

Who would have thought that Iran, a country that has been the nemesis of the past five American presidents, might actually become a model for what Washington wants to see happen politically in the Middle East?

Who would have thought that a Berlin Wall moment for the region might happen in the strict Islamic republic, where a revolution 30 years ago unleashed Islam as a modern political idiom and extremism as a tool to confront the West

Unlikely as it seems, the rise of a popular movement relying on civil disobedience to confront authoritarian rule — in the last bloc of countries to hold out against the tide of change that has swept the rest of the world over the past quarter century — is almost a diplomatic dream for the Obama administration.

Not the regime’s obstinate reaction or the brutality it unleashed on the streets of Tehran this past weekend. Even in his terse comments since the beginning of the electoral chaos in Iran, Barack Obama has made it clear the violence upsets him greatly. But in his speech to the Islamic world in Cairo on June 4, Obama spoke about the same principles that just eight days later galvinized millions of people throughout Iran to take to the streets.

“All people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose,” Obama said.

With what now looks like uncanny prescience, he added, “There is no straight line to realize this promise … Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away.”

Yet in the midst of a debate over the U.S. role in Iran — recent past, present and future — Washington can take almost no credit for what is happening. The $400 million allocated by the Bush administration for intelligence operations and the $75 million the State Department budgeted to promote democracy in Iran had little if any impact in changing the regime’s ways or empowering Iranians. Many Iranian NGOs even publicly said they did not want, need or dare to be tainted by U.S. financial assistance.

This is a revolution that has been unraveling itself steadily over decades, beginning in its early years. Indeed, Iran’s social transformation — educating, energizing and empowering a stronger and more demanding society, part of which has now turned on the regime — may offer Washington important lessons about what does lead to change in the Islamic world.

The symbol of Iran’s uprising is now a young woman named Neda Agha Soltan, reportedly a philosophy student whose death during the first clashes Saturday was gruesomely captured on an already famous cell phone video sent round the world on YouTube. A new generation of feisty women has been at the forefront of the protests. And the female factor is at the heart of Iran’s reform movement.

See TIME’s Pictures of the Week.

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