History in the Making in Iran

June 17, 2009

Iranian plain clothes policemen beat a demonstrator (c)AFP/Getty
Iranian plain clothes policemen beat a demonstrator (c)AFP/Getty

We are glued to news coming out of Iran, literally watching as history is unfolding. Commentators have been grasping for relevant comparisons; is this another Tiananmen Square? Another Prague Spring? Or is it even a Second Iranian Revolution? But no comparisons are appropriate for the phenomenal outpouring of people demanding that their rights be respected.

Why is this happening in Iran? We don’t see massive protests in other Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt when there have been allegations of electoral impropriety.

Adjectives such as fearless, indomitable and awe-inspiring come to mind as we see Iranians continually defying bans on opposition protests to pour into the streets by the hundreds of thousands. They constantly find ingenious ways to confound the authorities’ attempts to block communications; now that foreign journalists have been prevented from covering rallies, we rely on the videos, photos and eyewitness accounts provided by Iranian citizens to YouTube and their friends and relatives for up-to-the-minute information.

Iranians express their defiance in a variety of other ways: women have been risking their safety and even their lives to walk up to Basij (paramilitaries) and riot police on motorcycles and armed with truncheons to remind them that “we are all Iranians” and asking them to refrain from violence. Even members of Iran’s soccer team playing in a World Cup qualifying match in Seoul wore green armbands, the color of the opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi.

The yearning for freedom and human rights is a mighty force. Some have claimed that human rights is somehow a “western” concept, foisted on the rest of the world by paternalistic and arrogant Europeans and North Americans. Yet despite Iranian authorities’ attempts to portray the protests as being somehow the result of American “interference” it is clear that the impetus for the massive protests comes from the Iranian people themselves.

What will happen? Already the Supreme Leader has made an unprecedented announcement that there will be an investigation into the allegations of election fraud. Another massive rally by supporters of Mr. Mousavi has been called for tomorrow and there is no way to predict where events will lead.

The authorities have reacted to the unrest by use of force—sometimes lethal—as well as by mass arrests of opposition figures, journalists and human rights lawyers. We hope they will not unleash the full fury of the Revolutionary Guards against the demonstrators, which could result in unthinkable deaths and injuries. But we do know that there is no turning back. The Iranian authorities cannot count on the hope that things will just settle down and that the Iranian people will continue to accept the massive human rights violations perpetrated on them.