Shadow Government

Is green the color of freedom?

Former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky opens his book The Case for Democracy with a revealing anecdote: As my wife, Avital, was demonstrating outside a superpower summit in Geneva at the end of 1985, President Reagan, pointing at her, turned to Gorbachev and said: ‘You keep saying that Sharansky is an American spy, but my people ...

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Former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky opens his book The Case for Democracy with a revealing anecdote:

As my wife, Avital, was demonstrating outside a superpower summit in Geneva at the end of 1985, President Reagan, pointing at her, turned to Gorbachev and said: ‘You keep saying that Sharansky is an American spy, but my people trust that woman.  And as long as you keep him and other political prisoners locked up, we will not be able to establish a relationship of trust.'”

Elsewhere in the book, Sharansky recalls the time during his imprisonment when he and his fellow prisoners learned that Reagan had called the Soviet Union an “evil empire”:

Tapping on walls and talking through toilets, word of Reagan’s ‘provocation’ quickly spread through the prison. The dissidents were ecstatic. Finally, the leader of the free world had spoken the truth — a truth that burned inside the heart of each and every one of us.”

Though there are manifest dissimilarities between the Soviet Union of the 1980s and Iran of today, Sharansky’s memoir has some helpful insights for Iran’s current crucible.  This week brings news that the Iranian Government will be elevating its uranium enrichment levels to 20 percent (along with their customary head-fake about possible conciliation). The regime’s announcement is also a transparent, and likely futile, ploy to try to steal the initiative from the green movement as it prepares this week to mark the 31st anniversary of the Iranian Revolution with large protests demanding democratic reform.

In at least three respects, the lessons from Sharansky and Reagan might be relevant here. First, it is a standard part of the playbook of dictatorial regimes to accuse their dissidents of being tools of the West. While Western governments need to act with prudence and be mindful of local conditions, the tiresome canard of being “American agents” should not deter principled support for human rights activists. Second, Reagan demonstrated that nuclear negotiations do not have to be separated from human rights, but can be linked together, particularly when both are connected to the legitimacy and trustworthiness of the regime. Third, Western support — even just rhetorical support — for dissidents can be encouraging and even game-changing in assuring them that they are not alone. Hence the joy among Sharansky’s fellow inmates on learning of Reagan’s words; hence the chants of Iranian protestors “Obama, Obama — either with us, or with them!”   

As Jeff Gedmin and others have reported, the green movement itself is diverse and diffuse, with secular and religious elements, pro and anti-American elements, no clear position on the nuclear program, and no single leader. But that makes its resilience all the more noteworthy, and its demands more unifying: an accountable government that serves, rather than oppresses, its citizens.

So as this potentially historic week unfolds in Iran, here’s an idea for the White House and State Department: how about turning a section of your official websites green on Feb. 11? This would be a simple yet memorable way to add some spice to what will hopefully be official statements of support for the green movement from President Obama and Secretary Clinton. And it is a gesture that could quickly be replicated around the world, by other governments such as the U.K., France, and Germany, as well as by think-tanks, NGOs, and anyone else who wants to express solidarity with the cause of freedom in Iran. We at the Legatum Institute will be turning our website green. And to make sure that Iranian reformers know of such international support, the good folks at Radio Farda will be broadcasting, streaming, posting, and using all manner of multi-media to bypass Tehran’s censorship and get the word out. 

The Obama administration’s foreign policy has hit some rough patches as of late, and much of the international scene probably appears more forbidding than welcoming. Which is all the more reason to recapture momentum, show international moral leadership and launch a new “green initiative” — by displaying clear and creative support for the reform movement in Iran this week. 

Will Inboden is executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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