The West's Betrayal of Iranian Dissidents

The West's Betrayal of Iranian Dissidents

Mariam Memarsadeghi
Mariam Memarsadeghi
8 min read

Next month, Ayatollah Khamenei’s theocracy will stage celebrations commemorating 40 years of revolutionary power. It will do so amidst widespread acts of civil disobedience, street protests, labor strikes, and ubiquitous resentment produced by a collapsed economy and grotesque corruption. Even prominent regime insiders are now openly proclaiming the emptiness of the regime’s authority, with critiques resembling late analysis from the Soviet nomenklatura as it was confronted by cascading legitimacy crises manifested by the primordial contradictions of an ideological state.

When the Iranian people rose up against an authoritarian dictator four decades ago, they were rewarded with one of the most politically ruthless and socially backward totalitarian regimes the world has known. Falling for the siren song of populist Islamist rule, they failed to win the justice or the freedoms they had been demanding, and instead lost everything they had taken for granted under secular, modernizing rule: personal liberties, social progress, and economic opportunities that had birthed a middle class. South Korea and other countries economically inferior to Iran before the revolution are now towering over it, despite Iran’s vast oil wealth.  Iran, like Venezuela, has fallen precipitously into a wasteland of severe government mismanagement and unaccountability, environmental apocalypse, brain drain, and social malaise. Today, the country is beset by poverty, child exploitation, drug addiction, suicide, prostitution, human trafficking, and a profound lack of trust, the full truth of which no one dares bring to light for fear of deadly repression.

Even before they had managed to unseat the Shah, Iranian revolutionaries—a coalition of leftists and Islamists that ultimately galvanized the masses behind the radical cleric Ayatollah Khomeini—had captured the world’s attention. Ordinary Americans still share memories of Iranian students demonstrating on American college campuses. The irony of US educated Iranians rising up not only against a Shah that gave them scholarships to study abroad but also against “The Great Satan” that had welcomed them into its liberal and democratic society may be lost on American progressives. But it stands in bold relief for a generation of young Iranian liberals who reject a revolution predicated on hatred for America and the West, Israel, modernity, and a free, pluralist conception of the Iranian nation with ancient roots in the egalitarian, secular rule of Cyrus the Great and his declaration of human rights.

Now, Iranian protestors chant the name of Reza Shah, Iran’s early twentieth century nation builder, an authoritarian patriarch who nevertheless restrained the clergy and helped usher in a robust public sphere with a modern judiciary, schools and universities, industry, and urban infrastructure. He was the first Persian monarch in over 1,400 years to worship alongside Jews in the synagogue of Isfahan, a symbolic move that hearkened back to the Persian Empire’s religious freedom. His unveiling of women and his desire to see them educated empowered the nation’s workforce and catalysed a rapid advancement in women’s rights.

Reza Shah was certainly no Jeffersonian democrat. He ruled with an iron fist. But there is no question that the revolutionary tyranny that replaced his son Mohammad Reza Shah has been infinitely worse. Now boasting a “moderate” president, it recently blocked a bill to raise the minimum age of “marriage” for girls from nine to 13. Every night in Iran now, masked men (and even a cleric in broad daylight) brave security forces and cameras to spraypaint Javid Shah (“Long Live the Shah”) on street signs, city walls, and billboards. Acts of civil disobedience like these have arisen amidst an existing campaign by Iranian women who remove the hijab forced on them for the last four decades and post videos of their hopeful defiance to social media.

People in #Iran are asking for the whereabouts of the woman who took off her #hijab to protest the mandatory Islamic dress code using the hashtags #دختر_خیابان_انقلاب_کجاست and #Where_Is_She
She was reportedly arrested shortly after.

— Armin Navabi (@ArminNavabi) January 18, 2018

These, and other personalized acts of resistance toward corrupt clerical rule, have emerged alongside sustained protests against the regime’s totalitarianism by farmers, factory workers, pensioners, truckers, teachers, students, rights advocates, and more. Every day, Iranians’ social media feeds are filled with videos of fresh protests, as the constituency for Iran’s democratic breakthrough expands across the whole of the country, to encompass a full spectrum of employment sectors, lifestyles, and worldviews.

Yet today’s Iranian liberals, unlike the anti-American supporters of the 1979 revolution, are largely ignored in the West. Though their values are no different from those expressed by Solidarity in Poland or the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, Iranians who yearn for democracy and an open, prosperous society at peace with the world are met with overwhelming indifference from the West’s media and political leaders, not to mention its universities, unions, civic groups, churches, and celebrities—the very people and institutions that historically have lent their empathy, solidarity, and concrete assistance to the cause of freedom across the world.

On the occasions when outlets like the New York Times, for example, deign to cover the country’s disastrous economic mismanagement, they seem reluctant to acknowledge the widespread dissent and labor organizing that it has produced. Nor do they bring much attention to bear on the robust social media scrutiny Iranians exert on the ruling mafia that robs an educated but hungry people to fund its own hedonistic lifestyle and to finance terror abroad, all in the name of God. For years now, self-censorship has been rampant among Tehran-based correspondents and commentators including those filing with prestigious outlets like PBS NewsHour and the Financial Times and other outlets generally assumed to be professional and fair-minded. Even when interviewing regime officials in the safety and freedom of the West, journalists will pander with soft questions and even by donning the hijab, the regime’s most coveted symbol of its power:

And if the attention of a progressive journalist does occasionally linger on Iran’s parlous economic state, it is safe to assume they will find a way to blame the West rather than hold Iran’s own regime accountable for decades of theocratic misrule:

Iranians are as normal as any other people. If Brits rushed to get Irish and EU passports after Brexit, Iranians seeking asylum abroad is just a similar survival tactic in the light of destructive policy of economic strangulation of Iran in the form of sanctions for 40 years.

— Saeed Kamali Dehghan (@SaeedKD) December 31, 2018

Minding the red lines keeps these journalists’ visas and prestigious beats safe from regime interference and disincentivises criticism. Rather than expose regime disinformation, these reporters frequently recycle it in their articles and tweets:

The recent focus on the murder of Khashoggi offers an instructive example. The Iranian regime has bombed and assassinated countless innocents abroad, including former Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar, and it continues to plot foreign assassinations and torture activists in Iranian prisons to death. But Western journalists whose responsibility it is to report on Iran have preferred to turn their attention to the Saudi regime’s horrifying murder of one man, replicating the Iranian regime’s diversionary condemnations of the killing as it escalates its own domestic repression.

Angry Iranians want to know why relatives of high ranking regime officials and former regime officials themselves are granted permission to live in The Great Satan while they are denied entry. Hossein Mousavian, for instance, the regime’s ambassador to Germany during the Mykonos terror attack, is now a fellow at Princeton University and widely cited by the media and think tanks as an Iran expert. But the West’s reporters have not pursued this scandal or others like it, and appear to be content to leave the topic in the purview of the State Department:

Even taxpayer funded media, the specific mission of which is to counter regime propaganda, have become ensnared in regurgitating it. Once lauded for their commitment to truth and for the support it provided to democratic dissidents behind the Iron Curtain, Voice of America Persian Service and Radio Free Europe/Radio Farda have been feckless for years, the butt of jokes among Iranians demanding scrutiny of one of the world’s worst violators of press freedom. As real world demonstrations and accompanying anti-regime social media discourse have mounted, these outlets, heavily staffed with “reformist” journalists who previously worked for Iranian state media, are lazily—if not suspiciously—repeating regime propaganda, bolstering regime apologists and sidelining (when not openly antagonizing) dissidents. The BBC’s Persian Service has recently been relabeled #AyatollahBBC by Iranian protestors infuriated by the broadcaster’s pro-regime bias and its censoring of the democratic opposition.

If the Free World’s press is complicit in the regime’s stifling of Iranian democratic voices, its universities are no better. While Iranian women are braving arrest and violent repression to defy the Islamic Republic’s draconian religious dress codes, gender apartheid, and day-to-day humiliations, college campuses have either looked the other way or asked us to admire those women who adhere to Islamist norms in defiance of “Westernization.” These ostentatious displays of cross-cultural intersectional tolerance are effectively silencing and denigrating the courageous uprising of women denied the most basic freedoms and opportunities, and at a time when American women have never been more free and more able to help less fortunate women in other parts of the world.

Though it is barely recognized by Western feminists, the Iranian women’s movement is at the forefront of a valiant struggle for human dignity against a fascist ideology determined to deny Muslim girls and women the fundamental human rights and freedoms rightly cherished in the West. The defeat of Islamist politics and the global advancement of women’s rights are in no measure guaranteed but are, rather, wholly reliant on those heroic souls—above all free thinking women—with the courage to denounce medieval gender doctrines. In the halls of academe, the struggles of Iranian women are more likely to elicit embarrassment about the Global South’s naive embrace of Enlightenment norms than solidarity with the universality of their cause. In the name of a pious commitment to self-criticism, Western elites prefer to embrace the headscarf rather than risk the arrogance of imperial judgement. But their selectively applied moral relativism only helps to confer a perverse legitimacy on practises like child marriage, domestic violence and marital rape, stoning, and unequal treatment before the law which are, it is implied, culturally authentic and therefore superior to the hypocrisies of the West’s imperfect egalitarianism. In this way, not only are the socio-economic achievements of Western women diminished, but the struggles of women in places like Iran are scorned.

Not content with its betrayal of Iranian democrats and feminists, the Regressive Left is also betraying Iranian workers. Despite violent repression of independent labor unions, Iranians have staged a series of nationwide strikes. But their demands, the reports of torture, and the photos and videos of striking workers have been ignored by all but a few unions in the West.  The AFL-CIO once proudly supported Poland’s Solidarity worker’s movement during the years of Cold War oppression, but it has remained silent about striking Iranians. The American Federation of Teachers, meanwhile, has turned its back on Iranian teachers striking to protest unpaid wages, abysmal working conditions, and the omnipresent ruthlessness of the regime. It is as if the American Left is unwilling or unable to see that Iranian dissidents are suffering the same state-controlled command economies and rentier politics that characterize all brands of totalitarianism, regardless of time or place, culture or religion.

Even the world’s environmental protection organizations are afflicted by this peculiar myopia, and find themselves unable to condemn the regime’s responsibility for Iran’s dying rivers and filthy air. Instead, they concern themselves with polarizing, abstract climate change advocacy and drives to improve the lives of already privileged animals in the West while in Iran, natural resources are plundered, the environment is despoiled, and activists’ calls to reverse the devastating impact of government policies on public health are ignored.

What explains this callous lack of interest from the Free World in the plight of Iran and its people? Part of the answer can be divined from the accusations of “warmonger” that invariably greet anyone who draws attentions to the regime’s depredations. Claims like those I have made above, we are told, are simply a means of preparing the basis for another American war in the Middle East. But this thinking is as logically nonsensical as it is morally cowardly. Americans are understandably wary of military intervention after the experience of Iraq and the calamitous consequences of the “Arab Spring” in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. But opposition to military intervention does not require anyone to deny the despotic reality of the Iranian revolutionary regime or to ignore its embattled victims. There are many ways that Western democrats can offer solidarity and support to the struggles of Iranians who yearn for the same freedoms they enjoy. But first they have to open their eyes.

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Mariam Memarsadeghi

Mariam Memarsadeghi is co-founder and co-director of Tavaana: E-Learning Institute for Iranian Civil Society, a virtual institute offering secure democracy and human rights educational opportunities.