In 1985 — when no case officer could even dream of widespread pro-democracy demonstrations in Tehran like those that occurred a year ago this week — I first arrived on the Iran desk in the C.I.A.’s Directorate of Operations. One of my colleagues was an older man who had entered the agency in its early days, when liberal internationalists and hawkish socialists ran most of America’s covert-action programs.
Intellectually irrepressible, softhearted (for an operative) and firmly on the political left, my colleague did not recognize national boundaries when it came to promoting human rights. He could talk for hours about why the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper, the author of “The Open Society and Its Enemies,” was the answer to Iran’s religious tyranny. He was nearly alone within the directorate in his enthusiasm and plans for doing something to help Iranians against Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s theocracy.
As it turns out, many of the intellectual heavyweights who’ve driven Iran’s ever-growing pro-democracy Green Movement also love Popper and his defense of liberal democracy. The former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, who is fascinated by (and a little fearful of) Western philosophy and the economic dynamism of liberal democracy, can’t stop writing about Popper. And the much more influential Abdolkarim Soroush, an Iranian philosopher of religion who may be the most important Muslim thinker since the 11th-century theologian al-Ghazali, also pays his respects to the Austrian in his efforts to create a faith that can thrive in a more open, democratic society.
As I consider the changes in Iran over the last year, the people who come quickly to mind are my covert-action-loving colleague, Karl Popper and the army of pro-democracy lay and clerical Iranian intellectuals who’ve been transforming their country’s culture and ethics. They are our guides to what the United States ought to be doing vis-à-vis Iran; they are also a reproach to how President Obama has so far conducted Iran policy.
Whereas the Reagan administration in the 1980s could do little to help Iranians (Ronald Reagan’s determined efforts to engage the clerical regime over the hostages in Lebanon certainly didn’t strengthen “moderates” in Tehran), Mr. Obama could do vastly more. By throwing in his lot with the freedom movement, he would surely increase the odds that we won’t have to live with a nuclear bomb controlled by virulently anti-American and anti-Semitic clerics. Democrats, once the champions of promoting pro-democracy movements, need to understand that the good that they can do for the people of Iran far exceeds the great harm that comes from doing nothing.
Yet for the United States to help, we need to first see clearly what’s been happening in Iran since Ayatollah Khomeini’s death in 1989 and over the last year. In the 1980s, when Iran’s youth were enthralled by the charismatic Khomeini, it would have been difficult to imagine that in two decades the same Muslim society would engage in the most damning critique of dictatorship ever seen in the Middle East.
One reason for this shift is the intellectual stagnation of the regime. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s spiritual adviser, Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, is influential in part because he is all that remains of a legion of first-rate minds who sincerely believed that man and God were coming together in an almost perfect union in the Islamic Republic.
The Green Movement, which is an upwelling of Iran’s enormous cultural and political transformation, is what America has long wanted to see in the Middle East, especially after 9/11: a more-or-less liberal democratic movement, increasingly secular in philosophy and political objectives, rooted in Iran’s large middle class and even larger pool of college-educated youth (a college education in Iran, where the revolution zealously opened universities to the poor, doesn’t connote any social status).
The movement is similar in its aspirations and methods to what transpired behind the Iron Curtain in the 1980s. It aims to incorporate the spiritually dispossessed, the free thinkers, the poorly paid, the young (more than 60 percent of Iran’s population is now under 30), the dissident clergy and, perhaps most important, the first-generation revolutionaries of the 1970s who have been purged by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Khomeini’s charisma-free, paranoid successor as supreme leader. The movement is also the most recent manifestation (the first being Mr. Khatami’s presidential victory in 1997) of widespread anger by women over their second-class citizenship in the Islamic Republic.
The movement is unique in Islamic history: an intellectual revolution that aims to solve peacefully and democratically the great Muslim torment over religious authenticity and cultural collaboration. How does a proud people adopt the best (and the worst) from the West and remain true to its much-loved historical identity?
The millions who voted in 1997 and 2001 for Mr. Khatami, a clerical apostle of cultural integration, were telling us that for them, this is really no longer a big problem. Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who ruled from 1941 until the revolution, failed in his dream of turning Iranians into Germans. Yet 30 years of theocracy have done an astonishing job of Westernizing Iran’s culture and political preferences.
While the riots of last June did not topple the mullahs, the Islamic Republic is now permanently unstable. Every national holiday has the potential of turning into a day of protest, and the regime must send out hundreds of thousands of security forces, as it did in the days leading up to the anniversary on Saturday.
The brutality that Ayatollah Khamenei unleashed against the Green Movement last summer — government forces have been accused of murder, torture and, most shockingly, rape — has probably cost the regime dearly among the country’s devout, the bedrock of the supreme leader’s power.
Mir Hussein Moussavi, the most prominent leader of the democracy movement, is alive and out of jail undoubtedly because the regime fears the shock waves that could come with his imprisonment or death. While many in the West casually dismiss the movement because it’s been unable to maintain huge street demonstrations, Ayatollah Khamenei has an acute grasp of how numerous his enemies are and how volatile the country remains.
Yet President Obama — who only slowly came to recognize the Green Movement as a protest against tyranny — would probably ignore Iran’s democracy movement completely if Mr. Khamenei would just deign to talk to Washington about his nuclear program. The president seems irretrievably wedded to the idea of “engagement.”
The administration is playing up the sanctions it pushed through the United Nations Security Council last week. In the White House, sanctions are seen as a calibrated and reversible form of pressure tied to Tehran’s actions. Embracing the Green Movement would be politically and morally much more problematic. The movement is no longer just about liberalizing the state: it is now all about regime change.
But this is an instance in which playing power politics offers the United States tremendous upside. Ayatollah Khamenei is far more likely to compromise on nuclear weapons if he feels he’s about to be undone by the Green Movement. Common sense — let alone a strategic and historical grasp of what is unfolding in Iran — ought to incline President Obama to back the movement’s repeatedly made request of Washington: communications support.
More specifically, the opposition needs access to satellite-fed Internet connections across the country. Unlike landline connections, satellite-dish communications are difficult for the government to shut down. Just monitoring them would be a technical nightmare for the regime. The opposition needs more access to the wide array of satellites that are accessible from Iran — including Arabsat, which was founded by the Arab League in 1976, and France’s Eutelsat.
THE democracy movement also needs a large supply of digital-video broadcasting cards, which function much like prepaid telephone cards and allow downloading and uploading of digital content from satellites. The Green Movement’s technology experts have done back-of-the-envelope calculations: just $50 million per year could open the entire country to the Internet. Millions less would still allow the diverse range of pro-democracy groups to communicate with each other and more effectively counter the regime’s security forces. Compared to what the United States peacefully did to help anti-Communists during the cold war, such aid would be a pittance, financially and operationally.
Just a week before Iran’s elections last summer, Mr. Obama gave his speech to the Muslim world from Cairo. In it, he spoke about “the harmony between tradition and progress” in Islam by juxtaposing Egypt’s oldest center of religious learning, Al Azhar University, with Cairo University, once one of the region’s finest secular institutions. But these two universities, and what they represent, have been in a tug-of-war for over a century.
It was this lack of harmony — the constant tension between the Muslim search for authenticity and the Muslim love of Westernization — that destroyed Mohammad Khatami’s reformist presidency in Iran. The principal battle is not between “us” and “them,” but within Islam itself. Yet President Obama doesn’t seem to grasp that the United States is unavoidably part of this increasingly violent struggle. And we really do want one side to win: the friends of Karl Popper.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former Middle Eastern specialist in the C.I.A.’s clandestine service.