Tuesday, June 23, 2009

It was the sniper shot heard round the world. One moment, a young woman is standing on the sidewalk, watching the Iranian people stand up to the state. A second later, she crumbles to the sidewalk, blood pumping uselessly out of the gunshot wound in her chest. A faceless police sniper has killed Neda Agha Soltan, but also made her immortal. Her murder was videotaped and sent worldwide. Her death is now the defining image of the 2009 Iranian revolution.

For 30 years the world has tolerated this cruel and calculating regime, as it took hostages, paid terrorists and built bombs meant for allied troops in Iraq. Now the people of Iran are pleading their case before the world. While events are still unfolding, some lessons can be drawn regardless of how the revolution ends.

Freedom is universal

As recently as a month ago, many Americans doubted that the Iranian people wanted democratic change. That debate is over. No one can credibly claim that the West is foisting the ideals of freedom on Iran’s millions. They are telling us through their actions that these truths are self evident and not limited to any culture, time or place. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, they are placing before mankind the common sense of the subject in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent.

The phony democracy the Iranian clerics had erected to legitimize their rule is crumbling down on them. For a time, Iranians bought into the idea that their voices counted even in a system in which the vote was manipulated by theocrats handpicking the eligible candidates. But the 2009 election was an outright fraud. Attempts to explain it away have insulted the intelligence of Iranians and the world. The mullahs are offering many insulting rationalizations - there were too many votes for fraud to have worked, that the number of fake ballots would not have changed the final result, or that since vote fraud is illegal in Iran it could not have happened. This is reminiscent of embattled President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad saying there are no homosexuals in Iran even as Iranian courts condemn gays to death. Iran’s Guardian Council has admitted there was widespread fraud and that the total votes cast in 50 cities exceeded the number of registered voters. They attempted to downplay this finding on the grounds this occurred in fewer of the 170 cities in which there were claims of fraud, a pitiful example of spin.

But the debate over the election is simply a catalyst. The uprising has moved well beyond the ballot issue. We are witnessing 30 years of frustration pouring into the streets. We see demands for a livable minimum wage, the end to compulsory veiling for women, freeing prisoners of conscience, banning the death penalty and guarantees for the rights to free expression, organization, strike and protest. The people don’t want a recount; they want what they have been chanting for days: “death to the dictator.” This is one step short of a true revolutionary call for the end of the regime itself. Freedom is on display in the streets of Iran. The people are taking back their sovereignty, making a stand in defense of their inalienable rights.

And in their wake, they have left the tattered claims of the cultural relativists.

The poverty of Islamic rule

The Iranian uprising is a direct challenge to the radical Islamist program pursued in Iran since the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1979 revolution. The Iranian people have had enough of radical clerical rule. This is not to say they are not, for the most part, believing Muslims. They are simply people more modern than their rulers. They are objecting to mullahs exploiting their faith to bolster a corrupt, repressive theocracy.

The Islamic regime stands and falls on its ability to maintain its religious legitimacy. That authority is now in question, partly due to the regime’s tactical mistakes. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei quickly declared the tainted election results a “divine assessment” and since has stood firmly behind this conclusion. Once God is invoked it is hard to backtrack.

But God does not stuff ballot boxes. Now every night the people of Iran take to their rooftops and cry “Allah Akbar” into the darkness. They are appealing directly to God against those who presume to be his agents on Earth. The legitimacy of the jihad crowd to speak for ordinary Muslims is slipping away.

Iran wants America’s attention

Private media are running rings around broadcast outlets funded by America and Israel to challenge Iran. The uprising in Iran has become an international sensation through the global reach of digital information technology. Youtube, Twitter, Facebook and e-mail have allowed the protesters to communicate directly to the world, bypassing feckless regime attempts to suppress journalists. The rawness of the videos and the frankness of the tweets allow observers to experience the events viscerally. The impact is powerful.

As for those who are saying it is wrong to “meddle” in Iran’s internal affairs, would you please note that Iranians are holding signs in English. Many of the blog posts, tweets and YouTube narrations are also in English. If they are not crying out directly for American aid, why are they using English?

Neda Soltan’s death is galvanizing many Americans too. While many others have been killed in recent days, the immediacy and the shock of this lovely woman dying on the streets has struck a chord. People who were barely aware of conditions in Iran now weep before their computer screens. Neda - whose name means “voice” or “call” - has become the voice of the aspirations of the Iranian people.

Engagement is dead

Even if the regime in Tehran decides for some reason to extend an unclenched fist, President Obama would be shaking a bloody hand. The human-rights violations shown on America’s computer screens make it impossible for the president to engage in some 1970s-style detente with Iran. Even the realists realize that is now unrealistic.

The diplomatic climate necessary for the Obama administration’s engagement policy is gone. The subtle signaling dance of the last few months is impossible now. The Obama team’s original timetable, calling for progress by the end of the year, has been overcome by events.

Iran’s bomb now can’t be ignored

Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons now worries more Americans than ever. If the regime is willing to be this cruel to its own people, could the American soldiers or Israeli citizens living within reach of Iran’s missiles expect any mercy? United Nations nuclear overseer Mohamed ElBaradei said last week that he had concluded the regime was seeking atomic weapons to send a message to the rest of the world: “Don’t mess with us.” With the frailty of the regime broadcast worldwide, its sense of insecurity will have increased and, with that, the need to have a nuclear insurance policy. It is extreme folly for the United States to continue the official charade that the Tehran regime is not actively seeking such weapons. Politicizing this intelligence must end. The Obama administration should take this opportunity to demand an immediate halt to Iran’s bomb program.

The time has come to face the Islamic Republic without the comfortable blindfolds we have worn over the past few decades. The reality of Neda Soltan, dead with her eyes open, should open our eyes too.

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