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The Ayatollahs’ Democracy: Western Misunderstanding of the Green Movement

Hooman Majd’s The Ayatollahs’ Democracy begins rather jarringly with a series of brief, jumbled scenes set during the Iranian presidential election and its immediate aftermath, but it soon becomes much more readable. One passage from the first chapter sums up the fundamental misunderstanding that many Western observers had about the protest movement that began in June 2009. It is also a misunderstanding that continues to muddle the American debates on Iran policy, democracy promotion, and the role that the U.S. supposedly could have had in “helping” the Green movement. Majd wrote:

In the fall of 2009, perhaps the most perspicacious slogan of the Mousavi Green Movement was one completely ignored by both the Western media and most Iranian exiles, many of them agitating as best they could for the downfall of the entire regime. “Na dolat’e coup d’etat, na menat’e Amrika!” Mousavi proclaimed, while green-wearing Iranians abroad joined former Iran-bashers such as former vice president Dick Cheney and Senator John McCain and countless right-wing talk-show hosts in demanding that President Obama offer overt support for the “pro-democracy” protesters on Iran’s streets. “No to a coup d’etat government,” Mousavi’s slogan said, and we heard that, but we did not hear the rest: “no to an indebtedness to America.” Menat is a Farsi word that is actually impossible to translate, and “indebtedness” is hardly the most accurate indication of its meaning. It can be a state of indebtedness or of begging a favor, of being in an uncomfortable state of owing. As far as most Iranians who did hear the message were concerned, though, Mousavi couldn’t have been clearer in his sentiments. Iranians may have wanted sympathy from the West, but they did not want help, and they wanted to owe no one, in their quest for their own form of democracy. (p. 58-59)

The point has been made many times before, but one of the persistent, fundamentally wrong beliefs that many Westerners heave held about the Iranian opposition is that the opposition eagerly wanted outside backing and that “we” failed to provide it. Of course, this is paired with the complete misunderstanding of what the Green movement has been, which was never a revolutionary or regime-toppling movement. Besides grossly exaggerating what “we” can do for any foreign political movement, this belief that the U.S. “missed” an opportunity to undermine the Iranian government continues to distort the arguments over everything from engaging Tehran to the correct response to Syria’s current crackdown.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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