Remember Neda Agha-Soltan? She was the face of the “Persian Spring” in the summer of 2009. Sadly, Neda’s iconic image was captured from a video as she lay dying on the streets of Tehran, felled by a regime sniper. Neda was a tragic symbol of that failed uprising.
The current unrest has produced a new compelling photo, of a woman standing on a street corner in Tehran, her head uncovered, waving her white hijab on a pole. In another context it might look like a surrender flag. But in Iran it is a declaration of freedom.
Since 1979 Iran has been in the grip of a fundamentalist Islamic theocracy. Before the advent of the ayatollahs, Iran was a progressive, secular and pro-western nation. It was in some ways typical of countries in that part of the world before Islamism had become a driving political force. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolution was one of the early indications that times were changing, for the worse.
The regime’s human rights abuses have been well documented. Many freedoms are nonexistent. Civil liberties are curtailed. Political dissidents are arbitrarily detained, tortured and killed. Elections are tightly controlled, and essentially meaningless under the rule of the mullahs. The economy is under government mandate. Women live in a state of enforced inequality, and homosexuals live in a state of mortal fear.
The Islamic revolution also sparked the strategic competition between Iran and the United States. From the hostage crisis to the Beirut bombings, through Iranian support for terrorism and its strategic weapons programs, Tehran has been a perennial adversary. The slogan “Death to America” has summed up the relationship since day one.
Yet, Iran’s foreign adventurism is one of the causes of the current troubles. The regime promised that the nuclear deal with the United States and the end of sanctions would lead to an economic resurgence. But the expected growth has not happened. Furthermore, the windfall of hundreds of millions of dollars in direct cash transfers has not trickled down to the people. Instead Iran is still subsidizing Hezbollah militias in Syria, sending missiles to Yemen, and rockets to Hamas. Hence the chants in the streets, “Not Gaza, Not Lebanon, I give my life for Iran.” Meanwhile wages are down and food prices are up. It is not a recipe for stability.
A top cleric in the holy city of Qom, Hossein Noori Hamedani, has come out in support of the economic aspect of the protest. “The people are demanding their right and we must support them,” he said. But the demonstrations have gone well beyond economics and foreign policy to question the legitimacy of the regime itself. In Khorramabad people chanted “We don't want an Islamic republic" and “Death to the dictator!” Elsewhere protesters burned a banner with a picture of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
There have been violent clashes with security forces, protesters killed, police vehicles burned, and government offices attacked. Some protesters even invoked the name of the deposed Shah of Iran.
The regime staged a rally Saturday in Tehran as a show of support, and Iran’s armed forces chief Major General Mohammad Baqeri warned his troops “will not let the devil dream of weakening and subverting the Islamic system and revolution come true.” But it wasn’t a “devil dream” that sent a young woman to a Tehran street corner to wave her head covering in defiance. Or that drove teen chess champion Dorsa Derakhshani to defect from Iran to the United States, where she could pursue her passion without surly religious police saying her clothes were too tight. Or that is compelling thousands of Iranians to risk arrest, injury and even death to stand up for freedom.
President Trump’s support for the aspirations of the Iranian people stands in contrast to his predecessor’s diffident response to the 2009 protests. Last September at the United Nations the president said that “the entire world understands that the good people of Iran want change, and … that Iran's people are what their leaders fear the most.” On Friday, Trump tweeted encouragement to the protesters, warning the regime that the “world is watching,” which was literally true until Iran cut Internet access.
Whether the protesters can sustain their momentum, and whether security forces will start to desert the regime, remains to be seen. But the demonstrators deserve every encouragement from the free peoples of the world, with the hope that they may soon drive out the tyrants in Tehran.
James S. Robbins, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors and author of This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive, has taught at the National Defense University and the Marine Corps University and served as a special assistant in the office of the secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter: @James_Robbins.