February 11th was the 32nd anniversary of the Iranian revolution, marking the fall of the Shah and the rise of the Islamist theocratic regime that survives to this day. While the world was understandably focused on the unraveling of the Egyptian regime of former president Hosni Mubarak, in Iran and around the world, demonstrations were held to both support and oppose Tehran's mullahs. On Monday, after a relatively quiet weekend in Iran, protesters and security forces clashed violently, with security forces reportedly using tear gas and paintball guns to disperse anti-government crowds. There have been some reports that protesters were killed; the veracity of those claims, and the body count (if any), is not yet known. So far, this seems a far more muted response by the regime than the lethal tactics and brutal torture it employed against protesters in 2009. But one has to keep in mind that there is so much we do not know about the extent to which the vicious Mullahs barbarize their own people.
Iran's crackdown this time around drew swift condemnation from Western powers. The European Union condemned the reports of violence by security forces. The Canadian foreign minister attacked Tehran’s “hypocrisy.” Surprisingly, President Barack Obama joined his allies in speaking out in favor of the Iranian protesters. Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, the president also called out the Iranian regime for its hypocrisy in celebrating the fall of the (anti-Iranian) Mubarak regime in Egypt while simultaneously using force against its own restless population. “I find it ironic that you've got the Iranian regime pretending to celebrate what happened in Egypt, when in fact they have acted in direct contrast to what happened in Egypt by gunning down and beating people who were trying to express themselves peacefully in Iran,” said Obama.
Obama also expressed his hopes that the Iranian people will be allowed to continue to peacefully protest for more rights and a representative form of government, and condemned the reports of violence in the streets of Tehran. His words have been chosen carefully, to avoid giving the mullahs any excuse to portray the protesters and reformers as puppets of Washington, but it is clear that the United States supports the people of Iran in their struggle against their oppressive government. The Iranian regime was not long in responding, attacking the West for offering support to the anti-theocracy.
Anything that raises the ire of the mullahs in Tehran is to be applauded, and it is especially noteworthy given recent history. Two years ago, the president drew criticism from all sides for his refusal to utter a word of support for the reformers battling the regime’s thugs in the streets of Tehran. The silence was baffling. Though the president did eventually comment on the violent suppression of the protests, he did so far behind other major countries, and in his own words, America “joined” the chorus of international criticism, rather than leading it. Given the long-standing animosity towards America expressed by the Iranian regime, and America’s traditional commitment to democracy and human rights, for a U.S. president to stay silent while brave civilians took on the might of a brutal autocracy was inexcusable.
Hopefully, the Obama administration has learned a lesson in this case, and has correctly applied it here. Indeed, not only has the president shown that he has learned from his mistake from two years ago, but his administration is also acting as a coordinated diplomatic team, offering a coherent message on Iran no matter which member of the administration is speaking. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spent the last several days reading from the same play book as the president, stating her support of the Iranian protesters and their goals, and also condemned Tehran for its lack of political freedom, demanding that it enact reforms. As before, Iran swiftly responded, dismissing Clinton’s comments as confused.
“Confused” would indeed have been a fair way to describe America’s diplomatic response to the recent collapse of the Egyptian regime, which saw the administration seemingly advocating every position simultaneously, with the latest view depending on who was speaking into a microphone. Secretary Clinton declared the regime in Cairo stable mere days before the military was forced to seize control of the country, and Vice President Joe Biden suffered another of his legendary gaffes when he declared that Hosni Mubarak was not a dictator two weeks before calling on Egypt to give its people democracy. On Iran, at least, the administration has found its footing and taken not only a consistent stand, but the right one.
The administration is also putting its money where its rhetoric is. On Tuesday, Secretary Clinton gave a speech lauding Internet freedom and warning autocratic regimes around the world that attempts to limit free access to the Internet will not only fail, but will backfire by provoking and emboldening restless populations. While the remarks had been scheduled for several weeks, the timing is fortuitous, as the secretary’s words are given great weight by the role of online communications and social media in bringing down the Tunisian and Egyptian governments and helping Iranian dissidents communicate. Egypt attempted at times to disrupt the protests by shutting down the Internet, and Iran has long sought to block online tools that could threaten the regime.
Accordingly, Secretary Clinton pledged $25-million for developing technologies to let activists and dissidents evade government-imposed restrictions on online communication, enabling both the co-ordination of protests and communication with the Western world. While a small dollar figure, the Internet is an asymmetrical weapon aimed at the heart of autocratic regimes — billions can be spent on restricting Internet freedom, and it will all be wasted if one blogger can bypass the roadblocks and communicate to the outside world what is happening behind these electronic iron curtains. Governments that seek to oppress their people by limiting their access to the Internet are fighting a losing battle, and a small investment by America, spent wisely, could very well yield big results.
As a tense new day dawns in Iran and protests spread across the Arab world, the United States has recovered from its early missteps and taken a measured, and appropriate, stand on the side of the people of Iran. With new digital tools to back up its diplomatic stance, the United States is finally giving the Iranian regime and their nuclear-obsessed madmen something real to worry about. Let's hope the administration doesn't waver and continues along this course.
Matt Gurney is an editor at the National Post, a Canadian national newspaper, and writes and speaks on military and geopolitical issues. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @mattgurney.