When is it Time to Finally Discard Our Lethargy?

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I have been fortunate enough, on more than one occasion, to have met with one of the most revered dissidents in the struggle for human rights, former “prisoner of conscience” Natan Sharansky. He had mentioned to me that there were two essential things that had given him hope through those lonely, brutal years in the Soviet prison of Lefortov. One was that President Ronald Reagan had called the former Soviet Union, “the evil empire”. The other was that word had gotten back to him in his isolated prison cell that there had been tens of thousands of American Jews demonstrating on behalf of the Soviet Jews who had wanted to escape to the West, on the streets.

Imagine the dismay when attending a policy seminar earlier this week, in a prominent, right of center think tank in Washington. The subject had been “Iran’s Nuclear Challenge: U.S. Options”. I had brought up dealing with the issue of using this moment when there are hundreds of thousands of brave dissidents on the streets, who now have the advantages of the Internet, Twitter and Facebook, and when there is a fissure in the ruling theocracy. The response was “We have to be realistic…That’s not realistic.”

Meanwhile, the wise and learned participants in this illustrious panel offered the same tired, old, stale formulations of diplomacy, sanctions and military action, talking about the many negative consequences of each. One of the “counsel of wise and aged men and women” even blamed America for not having had an embassy in Iran for the last thirty years, (as though the Iranian takeover of the American Embassy and the hostage crisis of 1979 was an American initiative).

They went even further to scratch their collective brilliant heads, saying: “First we have to determine what it is that Iran wants.” What it is that Iran wants? Hasn’t Ahmadinejad made his genocidal and hegemonic intentions clear enough?

I would certainly agree that there are many negative and sensitive consequences to each of the three standard options. Yet, there is a tiny window of opportunity that is open now, to be a little creative and to think outside of the box, in order to help the freedom loving dissidents in their struggle for a revolution away from the pugnacious, brutal theocratic regime.

However “regime change” has become the new dirty word in Washington. We have all become so cynical that we have become deaf, dumb and blind to the beautiful sound of freedom-loving dissidents on the streets craving democratic change. There are subtle ways to help the dissidents, both overt and covert.

Since the election on June 12, when the results had been announced in perhaps the tiniest unit of time ever recorded, a mere millisecond from the time of the closing of the polls, there has been a steadily increasing tidal wave of an outpouring on the streets stretching now from Tehran into the rural outposts.

These people on the streets are rational actors. The ruling mullahs, who harbor an apocalyptic, eschatological fantasy of hastening the “coming of the twelfth imam” through the elimination of Israel can never be described with that adjective. Containment might have worked with the former Soviet Union, because they did not believe in an afterlife, let alone seventy two brown eyed virgins.

Although the acquisition of nuclear weapons is a point of Iranian national pride that cuts across all segments of the society, the demonstrators on the streets are rational actors who do not buy into self-serving Messianic delusion.

There are reasons to be hopeful: If and only if we work fast. When Ayatollah Hosseinali Montazeri, the highest ranking Shiite cleric who was a leading voice of dissent, died this past December, there were throngs of thousands upon thousands of mourners on the streets of Qum, where he lived. Furthermore, the reigning mullahs have yet to certify the results of the election last June, indicating a real fissure among the theocracy. In June, shortly after the elections, relatives of President Rafsanjani were suddenly arrested. Since that time, people have suddenly disappeared from the streets, no one knows how many of these dissidents have been taken from their cells and summarily executed. The threatened, insecure mullahs are acting as the Nazis did at the end of World War II, sending Jews on their notorious “death marches”.

The fact is that America has abandoned its rhetorical philosophy of “hope and change” to the people out there, on the streets of Tehran, who are really struggling for “hope and change” for this new “realism”, (read: selfishness and apathy). In the meantime, the wonderful example of American exceptionalism, as that “shining city on the Hill” for all oppressed people in the world to aspire towards, has been reduced to a collective sense of diffusive guilt, self-imposed ignorance and helplessness, and we are abandoning those who are crying out for our help at a time when we can be so easily helpful in bringing freedom and democracy.

In the age of the Internet, Facebook and Twitter, we can certainly get through to the Iranian dissidents. Certainly, if somehow our words of support managed to reach Natan Sharansky in his lonely prison cell in the Gulag.

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About the Author

Sarah Stern
Sarah Stern is founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET).

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