In Other Words

What We Got Wrong

What We Got Wrong

The spontaneous protest movement that erupted on the streets of Iran in June 2009 both amazed and baffled observers around the world. From the moment the first demonstrations broke out in Tehran after the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the media (and I include myself in that epithet) had a difficult time grasping the meaning of what came to be called the Green Movement. Indeed, our very use of the semantically empty term "Green Movement" became a tacit admission that we had no idea who these people really were and what they really wanted.

Over the course of the last year, that movement has defied every simple categorization, which partly explains why it has been so easy to foist upon it our own ideological leanings, our own desires for Iran, in the hope that it would ultimately become what we wanted it to be.

If you are a conservative commentator with a belief in Pax Americana, like my friend Reihan Salam, the popular protests in Iran were an indication of "the unraveling of one of the world’s most dangerous regimes … [and] the opportunity to build a real Islamic democracy," as he wrote on Forbes.com a few days after the Iranian election. If you are one of the liberal interventionists at the Brookings Institution, "Iran suddenly seem[ed] ready to throw off the shackles of the repressive theocracy that has ruled it since the 1979 revolution," as Daniel Byman wrote in Slate around the same time. If you are a Dick Cheney acolyte with neocon proclivities like John P. Hannah, writing in the Weekly Standard last September, the Green Movement was "the most viable option available for satisfactorily resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis short of war."

And if you are an Iranian-American writer like me, who lived through the 1979 revolution, then the Green Movement looked promisingly like the massive riots that toppled the shah three decades ago, as I wrote last June in Time magazine.

For most of us, the Green Movement was an empty vessel to be filled with our dreams. Its goals became our goals, its agenda our agenda. And so when it failed to do what we wanted — when winter came and the demonstrations dissipated, the regime endured, and the opposition leadership seemed paralyzed — we were quick to declare the movement dead and buried, as Flynt Leverett of the New America Foundation and Hillary Mann Leverett did in a controversial New York Times op-ed in January. Flynt Leverett had always viewed the Green Movement as a distraction from his decade-long quest to convince the U.S. government to engage the Iranian government in dialogue instead of hastening its decline. Indeed, he seemed positively giddy about the movement’s apparent failure in a February interview with PBS’s NewsHour. "There is no revolution afoot in Iran," he told host Margaret Warner.

Leverett was by no means alone in this assessment. By February, Michael Gerson, the former speechwriter for George W. Bush who coined the phrase "the soft bigotry of low expectations," renounced his own expectations for the Green Movement, calling its leaders "more accidental and reactive than heroic and visionary, more Boris Yeltsin than Lech Walesa" in a Washington Post column.

By spring, the media in general seemed to have forgotten the movement altogether. Given its early overreach, this may have been inevitable. Once it became clear that what we were watching was not the dramatic overthrow of a dreaded and dangerous regime, but rather evidence of the slow decline of that regime’s legitimacy, it became difficult to sustain attention. Without a steady stream of vivid images pouring out of Iran — young, green-clad protesters waving peace signs and being pummeled by Iran’s brutal security forces — news outlets moved on to more urgent matters: dead pop stars and boys trapped in balloons.

But there is just as much reason to believe that the memory of last year’s struggle will reinvigorate the Green Movement as there is that the movement will fade into history as just another failed attempt to challenge the hegemony of the Iranian regime. Either way, perhaps it’s best that we keep our prognostications to a minimum.

I myself will keep to that advice, with this one gentle reminder: The revolution of 1979, which I remember so vividly, began with popular protests that erupted in 1977. So maybe it’s a bit early to ring the Green Movement’s death knell just yet.

Read on: "Iran’s Hidden Cyberjihad," By Abbas Milani