Washington and the Iran Protests: Would they be Allowed in the US?

President Barack Obama had this to say about the Iran crisis on Tuesday:

‘ First, I’d like to say a few words about the situation in Iran. The United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats, the beatings and imprisonments of the last few days.

I strongly condemn these unjust actions, and I join with the American people in mourning each and every innocent life that is lost.

I’ve made it clear that the United States respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran and is not interfering with Iran’s affairs.

But we must also bear witness to the courage and the dignity of the Iranian people and to a remarkable opening within Iranian society. And we deplore the violence against innocent civilians anywhere that it takes place.

The Iranian people are trying to have a debate about their future. Some in Iran — some in the Iranian government, in particular, are trying to avoid that debate by accusing the United States and others in the West of instigating protests over the elections.

These accusations are patently false. They’re an obvious attempt to distract people from what is truly taking place within Iran’s borders.

This tired strategy of using old tensions to scapegoat other countries won’t work anymore in Iran. This is not about the United States or the West; this is about the people of Iran and the future that they — and only they — will choose.

The Iranian people can speak for themselves. That’s precisely what’s happened in the last few days. In 2009, no iron fist is strong enough to shut off the world from bearing witness to peaceful protests of justice. Despite the Iranian government’s efforts to expel journalists and isolate itself, powerful images and poignant words have made their way to us through cell phones and computers. And so we’ve watched what the Iranian people are doing.

This is what we’ve witnessed. We’ve seen the timeless dignity of tens of thousands of Iranians marching in silence. We’ve seen people of all ages risk everything to insist that their votes are counted and that their voices are heard.

Above all, we’ve seen courageous women stand up to the brutality and threats, and we’ve experienced the searing image of a woman bleeding to death on the streets.

While this loss is raw and extraordinarily painful, we also know this: those who stand up for justice are always on the right side of history.

As I said in Cairo, suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. The Iranian people have a universal right to assembly and free speech.

If the Iranian government seeks the respect of the international community, it must respect those rights and heed the will of its own people. It must govern through consent and not coercion.

That’s what Iran’s own people are calling for, and the Iranian people will ultimately judge the actions of their own government. “

The thrust of these comments is to deplore the Iranian state’s interference in the people’s right of peaceable assembly and nonviolent protest, a right guaranteed in the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

It is a good statement, insofar as it is phrased in terms that recognize an ongoing debate inside Iran and rejects US interference in Iranian domestic affairs.

But there are dangers here. Obama will likely be as helpless before a crackdown by the Iranian regime as Eisenhower was re: Hungary in 1956, Johnson was re: Prague in 1968, and Bush senior was re: Tiananmen Square in 1989. George W. Bush, it should be remembered, did nothing about Tehran’s crackdown on student protesters in 2003 or about the crackdown on reformist candidates, which excluded them from running in the 2004 Iranian parliamentary elections, or about the probably fraudulent election of Ahmadinejad in 2005. It is hard to see what he could have done, contrary to what his erstwhile supporters in Congress now seem to imply. As an oil state, the Iranian regime does not need the rest of the world and is not easy to pressure. So Obama needs to be careful about raising expectations of any sort of practical intervention by the US, which could not possibly succeed. (Despite the US media’s determined ignoring the the Afghanistan War, it is rather a limiting factor on US options with regard to Iran.) Moreover, if the regime succeeds in quelling the protests, however odious it is, it will still be a chess piece on the board of international diplomacy and the US will have to deal with it just as it deals with post-Tiananmen China.

And, the more Obama speaks on the subject, even in these terms, the more he risks associating the Mousavi supporters with a CIA plot. Iranian media are already parading arrested protesters who are ‘confessing’ that ‘Western media’ led them astray. In nationalist and wounded Iran, if someone is successfully tagged as an agent of foreign interests, it is the political kiss of death.

The fact is that despite the bluster of the American Right that Something Must be Done, the United States is not a neutral or benevolent player in Iran. Washington overthrew the elected government of Iran in 1953 over oil nationalization, and installed the megalomaniac and oppressive Mohammad Reza Pahlevi, who gradually so alienated all social classes in Iran that he was overthrown in a popular revolution in 1978-1979. The shah had a national system of domestic surveillance and tossed people in jail for the slightest dissidence, and was supported to the hilt by the United States government. So past American intervention has not been on the side of let us say human rights.

More recently, the US backed the creepy and cult-like Mojahedin-e Khalq (People’s Holy Warriors or MEK), which originated in a mixture of communist Stalinism and fundamentalist Islam. The MEK is a terrorist organization and has blown things up inside Iran, so the Pentagon’s ties with them are wrong in so many ways. The MEK, by the way, has a very substantial lobby in Washington DC and has some congressmen in its back pocket, and is supported by the less savory elements of the Israel lobbies such as Daniel Pipes and Patrick Clawson. I am not saying they should be investigated for material support of terrorism, since I am appalled by the unconstitutional breadth of that current DOJ tactic, but I am signalling that the US imperialist Right has been up to very sinister things in Iran for decades. A person who worked in the Pentagon once alleged to me that then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was privately pushing for using tactical nuclear weapons against Iran. And Dick Cheney is so attached to launching war on Iran that he characterized attempts to deflect such plans as a “conspiracy.” Given what the US did to Fallujah, it strikes me as unlikely that a military invasion of Iran would be good for that country’s civic life. And there are rather disadvantages to being nuked, even by the kindliest of WASP gentlemen of Mr. Rumsfeld’s ilk.

Moreover, very unfortunately, US politicians are no longer in a position to lecture other countries about their human rights. The kind of unlicensed, city-wide demonstrations being held in Tehran last week would not be allowed to be held in the United States. Senator John McCain led the charge against Obama for not having sufficiently intervened in Iran. At the Republican National Committee convention in St. Paul, 250 protesters were arrested shortly before John McCain took the podium. Most were innocent activists and even journalists. Amy Goodman and her staff were assaulted. In New York in 2004, ‘protest zones’ were assigned, and 1800 protesters were arrested, who have now been awarded civil damages by the courts. Spontaneous, city-wide demonstrations outside designated ‘protest zones’ would be illegal in New York City, apparently. In fact, the Republican National Committee has undertaken to pay for the cost of any lawsuits by wronged protesters, which many observers fear will make the police more aggressive, since they will know that their municipal authorities will not have to pay for civil damages.

The number of demonstrators arrested in Tehran on Saturday is estimated at 550 or so, which is less than those arrested by the NYPD for protesting Bush policies in 2004.

I applaud the Iranian public’s protests against a clearly fraudulent election, and deplore the jackboot tactics that the regime is using to quell them. But it is important to remember that the US itself was moved by Bush and McCain toward a ‘Homeland Security’ national security state that is intolerant of public protest and throws the word ‘terrorist’ around about dissidents. Obama and the Democrats have not addressed this creeping desecration of the Bill of Rights, and until they do, the pronouncements of self-righteous US senators and congressmen on the travesty in Tehran will be nothing more that imperialist hypocrisy of the most abject sort.

American politicians should keep their hands off Iran and let the Iranians work this out. If the reformers have enough widespread public support, they will develop tactics that will change the situation. If they do not, then they will have to regroup and work toward future change. US covert operations and military interventions have caused enough bloodshed and chaos. If the US had left Mosaddegh alone in 1953, Iran might now be a flourishing democracy and no Green Movement would have been necessary.

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