Since a wave of protests broke out in Iran last weekend following its presidential election, the American media has promoted the Obama administration’s view that it could do more to help demonstrators by staying on the sidelines than actively offering rhetorical support.
The theory is that if President Obama publicly encourages those taking to the streets in Iran, it will only backfire by allowing the Islamic regime to paint protesters as tools of America. As Obama himself put it, “sometimes the United States can be a handy political football…”
But Amir Fakhravar says this approach is dead wrong. And he speaks with authority. Jailed and tortured in Iran for advocating democracy and speaking out against the Iranian government, Fakhravar in 2006 fled for the U.S., where he currently lives in exile while maintaining close ties to the reform movement in Iran.
Contrary to most reports in the American press, he said the demonstrators he is in contact with in Iran are desperate for Obama to make a forceful statement reassuring them that he stands with those who are striving for freedom.
“Right now, the people in Iran are disappointed,” he said in a telephone interview with TAS. He recounted a recent conversation with a female actively involved in the current protests in Iran who asked him, “Is it possible for us to send a letter to Barack Obama and tell him, ‘Don’t be quiet’?”
Fakhravar serves as secretary general of the Confederation of Iranian Students, a network of young Iranians inside and outside the country, which began under a different name in 1994. At the time, he was a medical student in Orumiya, but he was expelled from the school and sent to jail for several months in 1996 after being convicted of speaking against the Supreme Leader.
He also spent several years in prison in the earlier part of this decade, during which time he said he drew inspiration from President Bush’s words in support of Iranian dissidents.
“We had a lot of hope at the time,” he recalls. “We felt the leaders of the free world wanted to help us, and were looking at us. That was very helpful when you are in jail for fighting for freedom and democracy.”
The Obama administration’s decision to engage the Islamic regime, Fakhravar said, has been worrisome to his friends in Iran. After Obama released a message in March for Nowruz, the Persian New Year, in which he addressed the “leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” a friend called him from Iran, crying that the American president would want to talk to the dictatorship.
“’What does that mean?’” he remembers his friend saying. “’We’re going to be alone. They’re going to kill us.’”
He said he’s hearing similar things from Iranians he has been speaking with throughout the week, who are stunned by Obama’s muted response in the wake of the election.
“What’s wrong?” Iranians ask him. “What’s going on with the U.S. government? Why aren’t they going to help us?”
What’s especially troubling, he said, is that Obama’s reaction has added fuel to a rumor traveling around Iran that Obama is in secret talks with the Iranian government. “They think he is trying to help the Mullahs stay in power,” he said.
To combat this view, Fakhravar suggested Obama speak up.
“Right now, (Obama) could say, ‘America stands for freedom and democracy, and as a United States president, I want to stand behind all of the freedom fighters in the world that are fighting peacefully to have democracy and freedom,’” Fakhravar said. “That’s the American Dream. I don’t know why he didn’t say that. He said, ‘this is none of our business.’”
Fakhravar dismissed the view that such a statement would be exploited by the Iranian regime to discredit the protesters. He noted that even with Obama’s tepid reaction, the official Iranian news sources are reporting that America is behind the protests.
“Whether Obama says anything or not, Iran is still going to play that game,” he said.
To be clear, Fakhravar does not believe Obama should explicitly endorse Mir-Hossein Mousavi. He said students don’t really know much about Mousavi from when he served as prime minister in the 1980s, arguing that he’s become more of a symbol of the desire for change. “Mousavi is just an excuse,” he stressed.
With the Iranian regime hated both inside and outside Iran, Fakhravar believes it is vulnerable enough to collapse if protesters are given enough encouragement by Obama and other world leaders.
“If the young people in Iran can feel that kind of support, for sure they can fight,” he said. “And if they can fight, if they can fight for just one or two weeks, the Islamic Republic is going to be gone.”