Will Bunch: American progressives should support the uprising in Iran — even if Trump does, too

Will Bunch, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Op Eds

Over the last 10 days or so, the world has been roiled by a conflict involving a powerful nation that -- after a generation of cultural change -- took a sudden lurch toward religious fundamentalism at the end of the 1970s and has never really looked back. Its current regime stays in power with a toxic mix of lies to the citizenry and intolerance toward political dissent and independent journalism. Since the start of the 21st century, its increased military adventurism and support for corrupt dictatorships has radically destabilized the Middle East. In 2020, its ruler's recklessness and desperation to survive nearly caused a catastrophic war.

But enough about the United States ...

Well, actually this column is about America in the Age of Trump, but it's even more about Iran, our Persian Gulf doppelganger which -- despite those almost freakish similarities -- has been our bitter archrival since 1979, and the crisis of Iranian revolutionaries holding 52 Americans hostage for 444 days, or maybe since 1953, when the CIA semi-covertly overthrew Iran's elected government because of oil and all that that implies.

The tortured history of United States and Iran tends to get lost in whatever current NFL-playoff-level showdown is taking place -- which since Christmas 2019 has been the death of a U.S. contractor, a deadly U.S. airstrike on pro-Iran militias in Iraq, a crisis at Baghdad's American embassy, the President-Trump-ordered assassination of Iran's top general, a retaliatory missile strike and the fog of war that caused Iran to shoot down a Ukrainian passenger jet.

OK, I'll concede there are important differences between us and them. Iran's internal human rights record is far worse -- we sometimes arrest our protesters while the regime in Tehran occasionally shoots them, and, despite Trump's disturbing "enemies of the people" rhetoric he hasn't thrown journalists in jail ... yet. But sometimes it feels the biggest difference is that we call our deity God while they call theirs Allah. Each reacted to the looser cultural mores of the 1970s with their own branded extremism -- which clings to power by its fingernails.

And by lies.

Even in a presidency that's stayed afloat for nearly three years by telling thousands of lies (once Trump passed the 15,000 threshold it's gotten harder and harder to keep track of the exact tally), the blatant untruths about how and why America pushed to the very brink of war (again) in the Persian Gulf have been astounding.

When Trump ordered and American forces pulled off the assassination of a high-ranking Iranian official in General Qassem Soleimani -- despite a still-in-effect 1981 executive order by Ronald Reagan banning assassinations -- officials insisted it was necessary to ward off an "imminent attack." But neither Trump nor his top officials initially said when or where these attacks were to come, or why Iran or its allies wouldn't still do the attack with Soleimani dead. They didn't even explain that giant hole in a closed door briefing with Congress.

Then, Trump blurted out that Soleimani was behind a scheme to attack four U.S. embassies -- a move that felt like Sen. Joseph McCarthy bandying about the names of 205 Communists that was really his laundry list, except this seemed even more phony. Excellent reporting by CNN, however, revealed that no embassy had been warned of an attack. What's more, NBC News learned that Trump authorized the killing of Soleimani ... seven months ago. I've lived through Vietnam, Watergate, the Iraq War and the absurd efforts to tie it to the 9/11 attacks, and yet this felt like the worst episode of the White House lying to the public in my lifetime.

More than 6,300 miles away in Tehran, the government of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was telling transparently ridiculous falsehoods as well. In last week's heightened tensions, Iran's decision to launch missiles at U.S. troops at an Iraqi base (no one, thankfully, was injured) and its fear of an American counterstrike led its forces to shoot down the jetliner -- apparently mistaking it for a cruise missile or jet fighter. Some 176 innocent people -- including 82 Iranians and 63 Canadians -- died in the wreckage.

Yet despite the immediate suspicion that the crash was related to that night's military activity, the Iranian government insisted for more than a day that the cause was "mechanical failure," causing even more pain for the bereaved families. The belated acknowledgement from Tehran that it lied about its fatal miscalculation had another consequence: Reactivating the anti-government protests that had been violently suppressed this fall.

Despite the risk of imprisonment or even death, crowds took to the streets of Tehran and at least one other Iranian city starting this weekend to hold candlelight vigils or stage protests, where some chanted "Death to the dictator" or "Khamenei have shame ... leave the country!" Other public critics of the government included the editor of a right-wing, normally pro-regime news agency and a leading female actor, Taraneh Alidoosti, who wrote on her Instagram account: "I fought this dream for a long time and didn't want to accept it. We are not citizens. We never were. We are captives."

The street protests were not large. That's probably because thousands protested and, in some cases, rioted back in November over a rise in fuel prices, which people already unhappy with the Iranian government saw as the last straw. That unrest spread to 21 cities and was met with extreme repression -- first a government shutdown of the internet and then troops openly firing on the crowds, sometimes from rooftops. It's believed that 1,500 protesters were killed; critics said the dead were quickly trucked away and some families were barred from holding funerals.


This unrest didn't happen in a vacuum. As I've written in this space for months, the second half of 2019 marked the beginnings of a global uprising that touched practically every corner of the planet, from Hong Kong to Santiago to Beirut. The immediate causes differed but the broader reasons were strikingly similar: Government corruption, grotesque economic inequality and a fundamental lack of democracy. In some places, including the United States, that's been the formula for right-wing populism. This is the next and most meaningful phase -- everyday people fighting instead for inclusion, freedom of expression, and democracy.

The courage of those who took to the streets in Tehran this weekend is remarkable. And the idea of a different kind of Iranian government -- one that rejects religious intolerance for more cultural diversity and freedom of opinion -- is something most of the world supports, including U.S. liberals and conservatives who agree about little else. But it's a pickle for Washington, because overt support for any uprising will be used by Khamenei and his men to rally the masses against America, "the Great Satan," and strengthen their grip on power.

One of the worst things about Trump's ill-considered assassination scheme was that -- as expected -- it became a rallying cry for the Iranian regime, at the expense of the protests that we should be supporting. When the jetliner shoot-down flipped the script somewhat, the president took to Twitter to encourage an uprising. In a message that was also tweeted in Farsi, Trump said: "We are following your protests closely, and are inspired by your courage."

On the American left, the reaction to the new protests in Tehran was muted. Instead, a political flare-up between the progressive presidential candidates, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, was all that most folks wanted to debate in social media. And everything these days gets thrown into our obsessive meat grinder of domestic politics, even when it shouldn't be. It seemed that Trump's enthusiasm for the Iranian protesters made progressives here somehow feel less likely to align with the same cause as our despised president. But that's wrong.

U.S. progressives should see the fight in the streets of Tehran as our fight, too -- and care more about freedom for people who've faced four decades of repression than about whether a new Iranian revolution could help Trump get reelected. The things that the everyday people of Iran want -- free speech, human rights, the ability to fairly choose their leaders and a government that tells the truth -- are the same values that we're fighting to either preserve or, in some cases, bring back here in America. We all should support the Iranian people in this struggle. Period.

And then we should ask ourselves this: The protesters in Tehran are literally risking their necks because their rulers told one lie too many. But when will Americans get that fed up over the daily stream of lies from Washington? Lie #17,008, or lie #18,317, or ... what? The real war in 2020 isn't trumped-up military conflict between nations that are more alike than they care to admit. It's a war for the truth, and it is worldwide.

About The Writer

Will Bunch is the national opinion columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

(c)2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer

Visit The Philadelphia Inquirer at www.inquirer.com

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