Dec. 1, 2002
Americans who care about Iran had something to be grateful for this Thanksgiving: The State Department finally came out foursquare in support of the hundreds of thousands of Iranians who have been demonstrating for an end to their country's ruthless Islamic dictatorship.
"Iranian officials are fully aware . . . that these are genuine calls for reform and they come directly from the hearts of their own citizens, the people of Iran," said State's deputy spokesman, Philip Reeker, on Wednesday. Freedom of expression is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he pointed out, "but when Iranian citizens try to exercise this right and appeal to their government for reform, they are met with violence, with arrests, and with death sentences."
That marked a notable shift in attitude from Reeker's press briefing five days earlier. When he was asked then about the stunning anti-government demonstrations that have been convulsing Iran, the exchange went like this:
Q: "Do you have any reaction to the large protests that are going on now and some pretty severe action by police . . .?"
Reeker: "I have not seen anything more than some press reports. As you know, we do not have an embassy in Iran, so I do not have any particular reporting or reaction to give you today."
Q: "You don't want to spur them on?"
Reeker: "I do not have facts, Eli, so I do not have anything on that."
Q: "They've been protesting for three weeks."
Reeker: "I've commented on it in the past."
Q: "Staying in Iran, please --"
Reeker: "Please, it is all Iran today."
Q: "Well, no, but I just want an answer on something. You don't have any reaction to pro-reform demonstrators -- for weeks to a month?"
Reeker: "We have, for a long time, suggested that the Iranian Government should listen to its people. We have discussed our concerns with the Iranian Government and some of its policies in terms of support for terrorism. . . . Our policy on Iran has not changed. I just do not have any minute-by-minute or day-to-day update or reaction on any particular developments there."
What prompted the change I can't say. But if the Department of State is finally prepared to support President Bush's policy on Iran, it can only be good news for the war against radical Islamist terrorism.
It has been nearly a year since Bush labeled Iran a member of the "axis of evil," denouncing the "unelected few" -- the ruling mullahs in Tehran -- who "repress the Iranian people's hope for freedom." His words were enthusiastically welcomed inside Iran, where the regime is widely despised and America widely admired. When the Voice of America broadcast a translation of the speech into Iran, it was deluged with hundreds of appreciative phone calls, faxes, and e-mails.
But there was no such enthusiasm in Colin Powell's State Department, which prefers a soft policy of diplomatic engagement with Iran. For months, State kept making approving noises about Tehran's "cooperation" with the US campaigns against Afghanistan and Iraq, and pushed the notion that there are "reformers" in the Iranian regime whose support America should cultivate. Yet it had nothing to say about the Iranian students who have been risking life and limb to challenge the turbaned tyrants responsible for turning Iran into a hellhole of fascist repression.
The extraordinary scenes in Tehran, Tabriz, and Isfahan evoke memories of 1989, when prodemocracy demonstrations drew massive throngs into the streets of nearly every major city in Eastern Europe and China. In Europe, those demonstrations led to freedom; in China, they led to the Tiananmen Square massacre. Which way Iran will go -- the toppling of the dictatorship or a brutal crackdown on the demonstrators -- there is no way to know. But every friend of liberty should be cheering on Iran's people as loudly and encouragingly as possible.
President Bush, it is clear, avidly favors regime change in Tehran. "The people of Iran want the same freedoms, human rights, and opportunities as people around the world," he declared in July, once again condemning the "unelected" theocrats who rule Iran and blasting their "uncompromising, destructive policies." To the demonstrators in the streets, he sent a message of wholehearted support: "As Iran's people move towards a future defined by greater freedom [and] tolerance, they will have no better friend than the United States of America."
Why the rest of his administration has not been equally vocal is a mystery. And even more mysterious is the silence of the press. The uprisings of 1989 were front-page and top-of-the-broadcast news in America for weeks on end. The astonishing demonstrations in Iran ought to be drawing equally ardent coverage.
We are witnessing an amazing moment: The people who have lived under radical Islam the longest want desperately to overthrow it. Across Iran, demonstrators have been chanting, "Death to the Taliban, in Kabul and Tehran." The world's foremost sponsor of international terrorism, one-third of the axis of evil, may be on the brink of collapse. Shouldn't we be doing everything we can to push it over the edge?