The mass street demonstrations in Cairo that brought down the repressive regime of Egyptian President Hosni Muburak last week have emboldened protesters across the region to rally against unpopular autocratic leaders. Since the uprising in Egypt began Jan. 25 the unrest has spread to Jordan, Algeria, Bahrain and, most intriguingly, Iran. But unlike its guarded response to the revolution in Egypt, and to the unrest after Iran's rigged presidential election of 2009, the Obama administration is getting this one right.
On Monday Iranian security forces clashed with demonstrators there after protesters in several cities tried to hold marches in solidarity with the Egyptian revolutionaries. News reports suggest that as many as 30,000 demonstrators may have taken to the streets, though that figure cannot be confirmed because the government banned foreign journalists from reporting on the unrest.
The Iranian government's brutal response to its own people's demands for political reform has revealed the utter hypocrisy of its initial praise of the Eqyptian and Tunisian uprisings as kindred events inspired by Ayatollah Komeini's Islamic revolution against the Shah in 1979. As soon as it became evident that the Iranian demonstrators intended to use the events in Egypt to renew their own call for democratic reform and the ouster of the country's theocratic leadership, the clerics denounced them as spies and subversives and threatened arrests, lengthy prison terms and even execution for anyone associated with the marchers.
The government's crude attempt to use the Egyptian uprising as propaganda against the West has badly backfired as the Iranian pro-democracy movement re-emerges to challenge the tyrannical rule of the mullahs.
Though the U.S. initially hedged its bets in Egypt by appearing to back a gradual transition to democracy that would have allowed Mubarak to remain as president until new elections could be held, fortunately it avoided repeating that mistake with the Iranian demonstrators. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday unequivocally endorsed the Iranian protesters' right to demonstrate and called on their government to refrain from the use of force against them.
That was in marked contrast to the Obama administration's timid response to the wave of pro-democracy demonstrations following Iran's national elections in 2009, which were widely viewed as fraudulent. At that time, the administration still hoped to engage Iran diplomatically on its suspected nuclear weapons program and sponsorship of terrorism, and U.S. officials seemed to bend over backwards to avoid criticizing the regime in public. If the failure of that approach taught us nothing else, it's that we have nothing to fear from Iran's pro-democracy movement. With people across the Middle East now daring to stand up for basic human rights and a say in their own countries' destinies, the U.S. needs to be as forceful in its support for democratic reform abroad as it has been about promoting democracy at home.