Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Obama 'bearing witness' is crucial to Iran

By Hamid Dabashi, Special to CNN
  • Hamid Dabashi: Iran is ground zero of a civil rights movement that will shake Mideast
  • Dabashi: Green Movement a gathering storm, helped by cyberspace

  • He writes: Obama must stick to his vow to "bear witness" to crackdown in Iran
  • Dabashi: U.S. civil rights icons, Muslim leaders; human rights groups should go to Iran

Editor's note: Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University, writes frequently on politics and world affairs.

New York (CNN) -- If someone asked me six months ago what would change on the national, regional or global front after Iran's presidential election in June, I would have said that nothing would. And I'm supposed to know better.

Before events in Iran unfolded over the second half of 2009, national politics had become all but irrelevant in that troubled region.

From Pakistan and Afghanistan to Israel-Palestine, from Central Asia to Yemen, geopolitics was locked in a terrorizing balance of power, a stifling politics of despair.

More presidential, parliamentary and city council elections have been held in Iran over the past 30 years than probably the entire Arab and Muslim world put together. But these elections were not the signs of a healthy democracy. They were the attempts of the Islamic Republic to legitimize its deeply troubled theocracy using the simulacrum of democratic institutions.

All that was exposed to the light by one simple edict this past fall. Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, the revered jurist who died in 2009 and was posthumously dubbed the moral voice of the anti-government Green Movement, said the Islamic Republic was neither Islamic nor a republic.

Outside Iran, national elections are either a ceremonial joke (from Morocco and Tunisia, through Libya and Algeria to Egypt and Sudan, to Jordan and Syria) or else barely consequential or positively damaging regionally (from Turkey to Israel).

But not in Iran this year. Not since June, when the Islamic Republic emerged as the ground zero of a civil rights movement that will leave no stone unturned in the moral earth of the modern Middle East.

The Green Movement, helped by Twitter and Facebook, has taken the show onto a big stage, and Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would like nothing better than to distract this global attention away from his domestic troubles.

Paradoxically, the man who could help Ahmadinejad in his determination to turn everyone's attention away is President Obama.

One photograph of Obama with Ahmadinejad would be a dagger to the heart of the Green Movement that would be remembered longer than the CIA-engineered coup of 1953. It would traumatize U.S.-Iran relations for another half century.

The creative civil rights movement the June presidential election in Iran unleashed is writing a new page in modern history of the country and its troubled environs.

The children of the Islamic revolution, those who one cultural revolution after another has sought to brainwash, are turning the rhetoric of the Islamic Republic on its own head. These Iranians are using every occasion since the last June election to challenge each mendacity they have been taught.

This is a cosmopolitan uprising, forming in major Iranian cities. It is a gathering storm in the capital of Tehran, and spilling into a cyberspace rebellion.

In a New York cab on my way to CNN for an interview, I received an e-mail from the streets of Tehran and read it on my iPhone. I used the message in the analysis I offered 10 minutes later to a global audience. Then my former student in Tehran wrote back to say he liked my analysis -- "and the cool color of my tie."

As the Green Movement gains ground, the regime is fighting back with all it has -- kidnapping people off the street, murder, torture, rape, kangaroo courts. Official Web sites and news agencies are failing to report the truth, distorting it, ridiculing or else attributing it to phantom foreigners. They have all failed.

The Islamic Republic is cornered; the public space is appropriated. Iranians in and out of their country, young and old, men and women, rich and poor, pious or otherwise, are all coming together.

Obama's reaction to the violent crackdown on protesters during the holy days of Tasu'a and Ashura has been measured. He has condemned "the iron fist of brutality," but continues to insist, and rightly so, that "what's taking place in Iran is not about the United States or any other country. It's about the Iranian people."

At the same time, he vows, "We will continue to bear witness to the extraordinary events that are taking place" in Iran.

That "bearing witness" means and matters more than the president's critics can dream.

The pressure on Obama "to do more about Iran," especially when it comes from a "Bomb, Bomb Iran" mentality, is hypocritical.

Iranian people have every right to peaceful nuclear technology within Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty regulations. And the international community has every right to doubt the trustworthiness of Ahmadinejad's government.

The worst thing that Obama can do now, not just to the best interests of Iranians but also to his own stated ideal of a regional and global nuclear disarmament, is to sit down and negotiate with Ahmadinejad.

It will legitimize an illegitimate government and will never produce a binding or trustworthy agreement. The alternative to suspending direct diplomacy with Ahmadinejad is neither more severe economic sanctions nor a military strike, which will backfire and hurt the wrong people.

The only alternative for the American president is to believe in what he has said -- bearing witness.

But carry that rhetoric further: Americans should send delegations of civil rights icons, film and sports personalities, Muslim leaders, human rights organizations, women's rights activists, labor union representatives and student assemblies to Iran. Let them connect with their counterparts in Iran and expose the illegitimate government that has suffocated the democratic aspirations of a nation for too long.

"Bearing witness" is an investment in the future of democracy in a country that is destined to change the moral map of a troubled but vital part of a very fragile planet.

The opinions expressed in the commentary are solely those of Hamid Dabashi.