Tens of thousands of Iranians chanting “Death to the dictator” marched through cities across the country last week, a show of defiance that belies the impression that the reformist movement has been petering out. At least eight people were killed in clashes with police, including a nephew of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi. Security officials stormed offices of opposition figures and arrested hundreds of dissidents. President Obama seized on the events to ramp up pressure on the regime and seek broader international backing of tough new sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. He said Iranians want “justice and freedom,” and warned that “the decision of Iran’s leaders to govern through fear and tyranny will not succeed in making those aspirations go away.”
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismissed the protests as “a play ordered by the Zionists and the Americans,” and he called for pro-regime demonstrations a few days later, which drew even larger crowds. In what looked like an attempt to divert world attention from the unrest, Iran this week rejected a U.S. proposal to outsource enrichment of uranium. Instead it issued an ultimatum: If the West does not allow Iran to swap its raw uranium for enriched uranium, Iran will begin further enriching its stockpile next month.
What the editorials said
This could be the start of a true revolution, said The Washington Times. The protests last week were called specifically to mark the recent passing of the “spiritual godfather” of the reform movement: Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a top cleric who became a leading critic of the regime and even repudiated his own role in the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy. “With his passing, the movement has lost his steadying hand” and could turn violent. The pro-democracy Green Movement “is more energized and radicalized than ever.”
The regime still has the upper hand, said The New York Times. It controls the “brutish” Revolutionary Guard and the Basij militia, and has no compunction about using them. But the mullahs ignore the “echoes of history” at their own peril. The last time protesters defied “the death blows of security forces” and chanted “Death to the dictator” was in 1979—when they toppled the shah.
What the columnists said
These comparisons to 1979 are largely based on wishful thinking, said Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, also in the Times. The protesters play well to the Western media, but they are a distinct minority; many more Iranians showed up for the pro-regime demonstration. Moreover, unlike in 1979, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led a unified movement with a clear mission, the current opposition has no clear agenda or single leader. If Obama is hoping that Iranian protesters will “solve the problems with his Iran policy” for him by bringing down the regime, he will be waiting “in vain.”
That’s why it’s time to “take a cue from Ronald Reagan” and unleash the bold rhetoric, said Ray Takeyh in The Washington Post. As Reagan did with the Soviet Union, Obama should “persistently challenge the legitimacy of the theocratic state and highlight its human-rights abuses.” Those who argue that pressing the regime would make a nuclear accord less likely are wrong: Remember that Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” even as he signed arms-control treaties. But tougher rhetoric alone isn’t enough, said Stephen Hayes in The Weekly Standard. We need a “dramatic change in strategy,” including enacting “the toughest possible sanctions” and threatening the use of force. Robust U.S. action could finally bring about necessary “regime change.”
Unfortunately, any action we take could easily make things worse, said Stephen M. Walt in Foreign Policy. Giving outright support to the opposition, whether through funding or just by “egging the Greens on,” would only lend credence to Ahmadinejad’s contention that they are a Western creation. Sanctions or threats of force would be even worse, rallying Iranians against the U.S. and behind the regime. “If you’d like to see a new government in Tehran, in short, we should say relatively little and do almost nothing.”