Letter from a Tehran Jail

In the New York Times today, Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett–both of whom I deeply respect–argue that the protesters in Iran make up a small, demographically isolated minority of Iranian society, and their activities therefore have very little chance of enacting real, substantive change in Iran’s political system.  For evidence of the protest movement’s weakness, the authors pose three questions:

“First, what does this opposition want? Second, who leads it? Third, through what process will this opposition displace the government in Tehran?” 

Needless to say, none of the potential answers proves satisfactory.                                                                                                

The Leveretts are entitled to their opinion, sacrilegious as it may be to some.  But in downplaying and even denigrating the activities of Iran’s dissidents, I fear that they will have justified the accusations that are sure to be flung their way–accusations of acting as apologists for the government, of disparaging a courageous and non-violent protest movement, and even of siding with Iran’s violent regime. 

I am reminded of the Letter from a Birmingham Jailthe famous essay by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in which he decries the so-called “white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice,” more concerned with the negative peace of the status quo than with bringing about that which is right through urgent action.  By action, of course, Dr. King was talking about civil disobedience. 

Like the “white moderate” in King’s letter, the Leveretts do not dare pin their hopes on seismic changes righting Iran’s political injustices.  Instead, they recommend the US acknowledge the movement’s futility, embrace Iran’s current leaders, and secure America’s strategic interests through rapprochement.  But their cynicism, which dismisses a popular movement without a manifesto, charismatic leader, or strategic playbook, ignores the plain and simple fact that repressive governments are inherently unsustainable. 

People who have awoken to the dawn of a freer and more open society cannot be pushed backwards and kept permanently in darkness.  Like Dr. King, the Iranians who take part in the protest movement–even if they are a minority–engage in civil disobedience in order to “bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive” in their society.  Iranians have not always lived in fear of roaming militias or cyber-surveillance teams watching their every move online; nor have they been closed off to alternatives structures that value individual liberty over ideological fealty.

“Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever,” King said. 

The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained.

In the case of Iranians, the “something within” is the long and arduous journey toward a democratic system of governance–a journey that began with the Constitutional Revolution in 1906, caught a fleeting glimpse of success with Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953, erupted chaotically in 1979, and has been brewing once again since June 12.  The “something without” is their forebears: Gandhi, Mandela, King, and Walesa.

I agree with the Leveretts’ conclusion that Iran’s government is not about to crumble under the pressure of the protest movement.  But I believe now more than ever before that democratic change in Iran is bound to occur eventually.  The events of the past seven months have revealed a conflict embedded deep within Iran that will not go away.  It might be suppressed for awhile, but it won’t be extinguished. The struggle for rights will continue, and, to paraphrase President Obama on the night of his election, the Iranian people will “put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.”

Posted By Patrick Disney

    5 Responses to “Letter from a Tehran Jail”

  1. Iranian-American says:

    ““white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice,” more concerned with the negative peace of the status quo than with bringing about that which is right through urgent action.”

    We have all definitely witnessed those who are more concerned with the negative peace of the status quo than bringing about what is right. Such people remain the biggest obstacle to bringing about what is right in Iran. This regime has very few “strong supporters”. What support it does have is exactly from those more devoted to order than to justice.

    As for these 3 questions. I think it is becoming increasingly clear what the opposition wants, even if it does imply a significant and what some would call radical change– basic freedoms enjoyed by people in Europe and the USA (e.g. freedom of speech, assembly, press). It’s true the movement is currently without a leader. I’m honestly not sure why people make such a big deal about this. Yes, if you expect a revolution by the end of the month, the fact that the opposition movement doesn’t have a leader is troubling. This movement is in its early stages. All the evidence seems to suggest that the movement is not only not going away, but is gaining supporters. A leader will come when the time is right. The third question is even more premature than the second. It is not clear what the process will be because it is not clear how the government will react. Iran is impossible to predict in general, and this crisis is even harder to predict by Iran’s standards.

    There is a point here. It is silly to expect a full-blown revolution in the coming months. I like the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reference. I haven’t read the essay, but now I will.

    Thanks for the article.

  2. Pirouz says:

    Thought provoking post, Patrick. Having lived through those days, I can offer the following:

    In your criticism of the Leveretts, you completely ignore their analogy of the US rapprochement with China, which incidentally took place during the height of the Cultural Revolution. What’s more, the Leveretts’ extend the analogy forward to the Tiananmen Square crackdown, and pose the question of what were to have happened if the human rights issue had dictated relations (and internal intervention efforts) for the US and China. Where would we be today if that were to have taken place? Really, this is more relevant to the Leveretts’ stated position than your MLK analogy.

    What’s more, the MLK analogy incorporates the greater American anti-establishment movement of the late 1960’s and early 70’s, which included numerous incidents of US law enforcement crackdowns, political assassination efforts, shot student demonstrators by the Army National Guard, shot and murdered civil rights activists by law enforcement and volunteer southern security irregulars, protesters regularly batoned and tear gased by law enforcement, radical calls by the more extreme elements of the movement for revolution, arson and the destruction of private and public property by protesters, widespread demonstrations particularly on university campuses, nearly 100,000 young exiles to Canada- and all the while, an American “silent majority” voted in a conservative element of the political establishment for US president, by a record landslide. And this “silent majority” accused the anti-establishment vocal minority of being manipulated and instigated by America’s cold war adversaries, in a narrative of the American way being the object of attempted subversion by foreign Red Russia, Red China and Red Cuba; nations that openly criticized the US for its human rights abuses and sided with the protesters’ cause. Sound familiar?

  3. Survivor's Guilt says:

    Interesting article.

    Pirouz, how are all the freedoms in America? Enjoying all of them? Only if you could give a few of those to the men and women fighting for it in Iran. Of course only if you think they deserve it..right?

  4. Publicola says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with Iranian-American. I even think it is an unusually strong point of the “green” movement for more democracy, that is hasn’t got any “leader”, but is probably multi-centred and multi-focused, being thus able to react flexibly to whatever may come its way, not expecting a “saviour” to tell them any time in any detail what is to be done and being helpless and at a loss without him.

    Another item to be meditated upon is “that the protesters in Iran make up a small, demographically isolated minority of Iranian society”. I doubt, that a percentage of more than 35 % of an electorate [government-officially admitted figure of the oppositional election results], which the opposition candidates managed to rally in their favour, is a negligible figure in any way. It’s more than one third of the whole Iranian electorate.

    Any of the two German people’s parties (Social Democrats and Christian Democrats) achieved much less than 30 % of the votes respectively in the last national election in 2009; i.e. each of them is less legitimized than the opposition in Iran.

    Another item to mention is that more than two-thirds of the Iranian population are living in urban areas, that’s a proportion slightly superior to that in Japan ! The afore-mentioned election results are said to have been achieved mainly in urban areas.

    The electorate of the opposition candidates are said to be the younger strata of Iranian society. Urban youth is the demographically, i.e. quantitatively, strongest section of the population.

    As to the MLK-analogy:
    the Vietnam War had been stopped;
    racial equality had to be tackled seriously,
    so that we now can be happy to have a personage like Obama [and not someone like Bush] at the helm of the ship of the American state
    as the world is tossing in the storm of different crises.

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Tell Google: Stop playing Persian Gulf name games!

May 14, 2012
Larry Page
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Dear Mr. Page:

It has come to our attention that Google has begun omitting the title of the Persian Gulf from its Google Maps application. This is a disconcerting development given the undisputed historic and geographic precedent of the name Persian Gulf, and the more recent history of opening up the name to political, ethnic, and territorial disputes. However unintentionally, in adopting this practice, Google is participating in a dangerous effort to foment tensions and ethnic divisions in the Middle East by politicizing the region’s geographic nomenclature. Members of the Iranian-American community are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts, particularly at a time when regional tensions already have been pushed to the brink and threaten to spill over into conflict. As the largest grassroots organization in the Iranian-American community, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) calls on Google to not allow its products to become propaganda tools and to immediately reinstate the historically accurate, apolitical title of “Persian Gulf” in all of its informational products, including Google Maps.

Historically, the name “Persian Gulf” is undisputed. The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy referencing in his writings the “Aquarius Persico.” The Romans referred to the "Mare Persicum." The Arabs historically call the body of water, "Bahr al-Farsia." The legal precedent of this nomenclature is also indisputable, with both the United Nations and the United States Board of Geographic Names confirming the sole legitimacy of the term “Persian Gulf.” Agreement on this matter has also been codified by the signatures of all six bordering Arab countries on United Nations directives declaring this body of water to be the Persian Gulf.

But in the past century, and particularly at times of escalating tensions, there have been efforts to exploit the name of the Persian Gulf as a political tool to foment ethnic division. From colonial interests to Arab interests to Iranian interests, the opening of debate regarding the name of the Persian Gulf has been a recent phenomenon that has been exploited for political gain by all sides. Google should not enable these politicized efforts.

In the 1930s, British adviser to Bahrain Sir Charles Belgrave proposed to rename the Persian Gulf, “Arabian Gulf,” a proposal that was rejected by the British Colonial and Foreign offices. Two decades later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company resurrected the term during its dispute with Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister whose battle with British oil interests would end in a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état that continues to haunt U.S.-Iran relations. In the 1960s, the title “Arabian Gulf” became central to propaganda efforts during the Pan-Arabism era aimed at exploiting ethnic divisions in the region to unite Arabs against non-Arabs, namely Iranians and Israelis. The term was later employed by Saddam Hussein to justify his aims at territorial expansion. Osama Bin Laden even adopted the phrase in an attempt to rally Arab populations by emphasizing ethnic rivalries in the Middle East.

We have serious concerns that Google is now playing into these efforts of geographic politicization. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Google has stirred controversy on this topic. In 2008, Google Earth began including the term “Arabian Gulf” in addition to Persian Gulf as the name for the body of water. NIAC and others called on you then to stop using this ethnically divisive propaganda term, but to no avail. Instead of following the example of organizations like the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 used term “Arabian Gulf” in its maps but recognized the error and corrected it, Google has apparently decided to allow its informational products to become politicized.

Google should rectify this situation and immediately include the proper name for the Persian Gulf in Google Maps and all of its informational products. The exclusion of the title of the Persian Gulf diminishes your applications as informational tools, and raises questions about the integrity and accuracy of information provided by Google.

We strongly urge you to stay true to Google’s mission – “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – without distorting or politicizing that information. We look forward to an explanation from you regarding the recent removal of the Persian Gulf name from Google Maps and call on you to immediately correct this mistake.



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