On November 4, the Iranian regime held its national holiday commemorating the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and the taking of hostages in 1979. In a stunning rebuke to those who warn that the U.S. must not confront Iran lest it enable the regime to rally nationalist support, the Iranian people reacted to the holiday by making a firm showing of opposition to the regime. The chants of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” were met with “Death to Russia” and “Death to China,” whom the Iranian people see as the enablers of their oppressors, and “Death to Dictatorship.” The regime knew trouble was brewing and reacted by banning large gatherings and firmly warning against any rallies that weren’t in support of the holiday. The Iranian people, knowing full well the brutality that would come to them, came out in the streets, knowing their blood and lives were a small price to pay for an attempt to change history.
Read the words of one person in Iran who emailed me on November 4. “Today, I can tell you that this is the most unbelievable scene that we have been witnessing since the Qods Day,” he said, referring to the last holiday declared by the regime to show support for its radical agenda that was used by the Iranian people to rally against that same agenda. The person continued, “Everywhere is flooded with suppressive agents and they really beat people and attack them viciously, but there is a strong unity and strong will amongst the people to resist. It seems that everybody knows that to gain our freedom we have to pay the price for it.”
And pay the price they did. YouTube has many videos of women being viciously attacked by the Basiji and other security forces. Cars that honked their horns to express support for the demonstrators were damaged by the batons of the regime’s thugs. It seems from the reports I’ve been receiving that a number of people have been shot, hundreds have been arrested, and probably thousands have been wounded. The security agents fired real bullets as well as plastic bullets with dye so their victims would be marked as they fled. Pepper spray was generously used and Basiji operatives without batons used chains instead. Among those arrested was the mother of Neda Agha Sultan, the young woman whose death was videotaped and put on the Internet, proliferating images that one day will be written as being decisive in ending the regime.
The demonstrations were so large that the security forces broadcasted their radical Islamic speeches on loudspeakers on full volume so as to drown out the noise of the chants. It should also be mentioned that posters of Khamenei were stomped on, that “Death to Khamenei” was spray-painted, and that the chants are becoming more and more aimed at him. This uprising is not about the election or Ahmadinejad per se; it’s about the whole theocratic system of governance.
Equally as inspiring as the Iranians’ courage is their ability to organize despite the best efforts of a highly disciplined intelligence service and a government with no civil liberties restrictions. Michael Ledeen reported that Russian experts had been brought in to jam transmissions. My sources in Iran reported the Internet as being painstakingly slow, with users of Gmail and Yahoo reporting major interference. Classes at many universities were canceled to prevent the schools from being used as a rallying point, and anyone seen filming had their equipment confiscated and were often attacked. Cafes with Internet access were closed, mobile antennas around greater Tehran were blocked, and shops were ordered to close, especially the ones around universities. The regime’s best efforts did not stop the Iranian people from organizing, and it should be expected that all future holidays declared by the regime will result in spontaneous outpourings of dissent. Gone are the days that organizers of protests had to pick specific dates and adjust them because of security measures and spend an enormous amount of time informing people; now the regime has given the protesters’ their calendar.
The run-up to November 4 provided a glimpse of the momentum that was building. On October 28, one brave student named Mahmoud Vahidnia confronted Ayatollah Khamenei at a lecture he gave, berating him for 20 minutes for not allowing himself to be criticized, among other transgressions. Probably out of fear of creating another hero, sparking a backlash, and proving Vahidnia’s point, he has not been punished. Not yet, at least. Two days prior to the rallies, the liberal Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, who was once Khomeini’s chosen successor and is the top cleric in Iran, declared that Khamenei lacks the religious qualifications to issue fatwas, which essentially disqualifies him from office and removes all religious legitimacy the regime claims to have. He also described the embassy takeover as a mistake.
There’s a greater point that needs to be addressed, though. The protesters aren’t only trying to weaken the regime. They are desperately trying to get Western attention. They know that the celebration of an attack on Americans will gain at least some attention from the Western media, and they sought to use that opportunity to show the true face of Iran. The apology by the Green Movement for the hostage-takings is another remarkably bold act of defiance of the regime that strikes at the Islamic Revolution’s earliest days and can only be interpreted as a way of gaining American attention. As is the case with other peoples fighting for their freedom, when the U.S. is silent in the face of their cries, they begin to question our commitment to our own principles. It is not surprising that a video has hit the Internet of Iranians chanting that President Obama needs to choose a side. It is rare that the American president is criticized at such pro-democracy demonstrations and it shows the abandonment the Iranian people are feeling.
President Obama is making a sincere effort to improve the image of the United States in the world and, as I wrote, he’s achieved a great deal in this regard. One area in which he is failing is Iran. If President Obama wants to prove that the U.S. stands for its principles and wants to restore trust in our integrity, he should join the Iranian people in marking the regime’s holidays on his calendar — and add his voice to theirs.