Vice President Biden predicted this moment. The point at which the new president, a foreign policy neophyte, would be sorely tested by world events. The happenings in Iran must be responded to. But how? At the moment the argument in Washington and among the mainstream media is woefully predictable and bipartisan. On one side the target is the president himself, who is being portrayed as weak and slow and as a hostage to the rhetoric of non-intervention. Remarkably, the other side is actually depicting the President as the catalyst for these historic events, with his Cairo speech described as the spark of hope that ignited the fire for change among the young Iranian demonstrators. The enormity of the events, however, demands a less superficial analysis and an ability to put America’s unique position in context. President Obama’s predecessor was roundly ridiculed by many for his vision of a democratic Greater Middle East that would grow as a result of the US intervention in Iraq. Was he really a naÃ¯ve dilettante? Or should the deaths of brave Iranians such as Neda Agha-Setan make us now reassess that vision?
The competing ideologies of the 21st Century world cannot be understood without an understanding of the crucial and interconnected events of 1979. In one and the same year, interestingly marked as a new century by the Muslim calendar (1400), the USSR invaded Afghanistan; Muslim fundamentalists laid siege to Mecca, the holiest site in Islam; and the Shah of Iran’s regime was deposed and replaced by the first successful Islamic theocracy. The first two events would have a combined legacy resulting in the creation of al Qaeda and the global exportation of Salafi Jihad. The second would reshape the geopolitics of the Middle East, bring us modern suicide bombing and turn Iran into the leading supporter of anti-American and anti-Israeli terrorism in the world.
Exactly thirty years have passed. The Soviet Union met its Vietnam in Afghanistan. Soon after its withdrawal from Central Asia, the Evil Empire lost its ideological war with the USA and dissolved into its constituent parts. At the same time, the Arab Service Bureau that had recruited foreign fighters for the Holy War in Afghanistan, was taken over by Osama bin Laden and renamed al Qaeda. As to the siege of Mecca, the Saudi regime made an ill-conceived pact with the Wahhabi clerics that had spurred on the extremists: In exchange for security within its borders, the House of Saud would support the export of extremist Islamic ideology, such as that utilized by al Qaeda. And under Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran would grow into a nuclear pariah, creating and maintaining terrorist organizations across the globe and eventually supporting the deadly insurgents in post-invasion Iraq.
But thirty years is a long time even for authoritarian regimes such as Iran’s. With an ancient sense of Persian identity and an educated middle class familiar with the West before and even after 1979, the mullahs knew that the only way to keep the theocracy safe was to have all substantive decisions be made by them and not the politicians. However, it is one thing to pretend that you run a representational regime if you are small and quiet. But the religious elite in Iran was not modest in its ambitions; it wished to become the regional force, the center of Shia revival in the world and the foremost proponent of state-sponsored terrorism. Thus the faÃ§ade could only last so long. And as usual it was the patience of the young generation that snapped first.
As one whose family fled the dictatorship in Hungary, I can only stand in awe and admiration of the twenty-something year-old Iranians who have decided to risk all in their own version of 1956, 1968 or 1989. And there was a link between Budapest, Prague and Tiananmen Square, a bond that ties these events to 1776 and the founding of this great nation.
The individual is sacred in our civilization. The mullahs are afraid of this truth; perhaps they fear it is a truth that makes our culture more desirable to people than theirs. So let us rise above the political divisions that have so flavored politics in general. America must set the example by leading the way. Of course, we are not here to tell others how to live their lives. That is not what the West or 1776 were about. But we are here to help those who have expressed their desire to live by the values we hold dear -- people who right now are risking everything they hold most dear, including their lives, to live like us in freedom. The sacrifice made by those like Neda must not be allowed to go unrewarded. For too long we in the West have been victim of martyrdom used by the Iranian regime against us and our allies. Now, on the streets of Tehran, a brave American reports that the chant is baradar-e shahidam, rai-e to pas migiram, “My martyred brother, I will reclaim your vote.” Incredibly, today, Iranians are being martyred so their fellow countrymen can become part of our world.
The administration and the leaders of the Republic Party must join together, rally the nations who stand by democratic ideals and signal their unequivocal support of those that 30 years ago this very month were labeled by Khomeini as “counter-revolutionaries.”