One year ago this week in Iran, the desire for democracy gave birth to an indigenous political reform movement that is more promising and more consequential than anything the Middle East has seen in a generation. One year ago, the conventional wisdom held that the prospect for political evolution in Iran was dim and distant. But as it often is, that conventional wisdom was utterly wrong: After the Iranian people were denied their right to a free and fair election, the world watched in awe as a sea of protestors—by some estimates, as many as three million Iranians—swelled into streets all around the country. Ordinary Iranians realized that they could not remain neutral in the struggle for human rights in their country, and they became part of it. As a result, history was made before our very eyes: one year ago, democratic change in Iran looked rather improbable, but just one week later it looked virtually inevitable.
Unfortunately, we also watched the ensuing crackdown, which was as swift as it was brutal. Peaceful protestors were attacked in the streets by masked agents of the Iranian regime, then dragged away to the darkest corners of cruelty. Many of Iran’s best and brightest were forced to flee in fear from the land they love, and to seek asylum in places such as Iraq and Turkey, where they remain today as refugees. We read the desperate pleas of terrorized Iranians as they shouted for help through whatever cracks they could make in Iran’s government-censored Internet. And then, on June 20, 2009, the entire world watched as a young woman named Neda bled to death in the streets of Tehran. And on that day, I believe, we witnessed the beginning of the end of this offensive government in Iran.
The past year’s events have demonstrated the true character of Iran’s people: proud, talented, the stewards of a great culture, eager to engage with the world, and relentless in their quest for justice—a nation that should be a natural ally of the United States. The past year’s events have also highlighted the true character of the Iranian regime: a violent and militarized tyranny, self-serving and unconcerned for the welfare of Iran’s people, with no shred of legitimacy left to justify its rule. We cannot any longer separate the behavior of Iran’s government from its character.
After all, is it any wonder that a regime that has no regard whatsoever for the rights, the dignity, the very lives of its own people, would also show the same blatant disregard for its own international agreements, for the sovereignty and security of its neighbors, and for the responsibilities of all civilized nations? Is it any wonder that this is the same regime that spends its people’s precious resources not on roads, or schools, or hospitals, or jobs that benefit all Iranians—but on funding violent groups of foreign extremists who murder the innocent? And is it any wonder that this Iranian regime has been, and will always be, uncompromising in its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability—not just because it would be a source of power in the world, but perhaps more importantly, because it would be a source of safety and survival for its corrupt, unjust system at home?
When we consider the many threats and crimes of Iran’s government, we are led to one inescapable conclusion: it is the character of this Iranian regime—not just its behavior—that is the deeper threat to peace and freedom in our world, and in Iran. For this reason, I believe that it will only be a change in the Iranian regime itself—a peaceful change, chosen by and led by the people of Iran—that can finally produce the changes we seek in Iran’s policies.
Even now, though, we hear it said over and over that Iran’s democratic opposition has been beaten into submission. I would not deny that a regime like this one, which knows no limits to its ruthlessness, will achieve many of its goals—for now. But when Iran’s rulers are too afraid of their own people to tolerate even routine public demonstrations on regime holidays, as they recently demonstrated, this is not a government that is succeeding. It is a cabal of criminals who understand that their morally bankrupt regime is now on the wrong side of Iranian history.
The question that we, the United States, must answer is, what side of Iranian history are we on? For sixteen months, President Obama’s outstretched hand to Iran’s rulers has been consistently and defiantly met with a clenched fist—a fist that is now more stained than ever with the blood of Iran’s sons and daughters. This week we finally shifted our policy to sanctions. By itself, the latest Security Council resolution is inadequate. We now need Congress to finish the Iran sanctions bill, so we can pass it without delay. And we need the administration to impose new targeted sanctions against those Iranian officials, businesses, and banks that promote the regime’s most dangerous policies —and we need our partners in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East to do the same.
But what is the goal of all this? Is it to persuade Iran’s rulers to sit down and negotiate in good faith—to stop pursuing nuclear weapons, supporting terrorism, and abusing their own people? I truly hope that this is possible—but that assumption seems totally at odds with the character of this Iranian regime. For that reason, I would suggest a different goal: to mobilize our friends and allies in like-minded countries, both in the public sphere and the private sector, to challenge the legitimacy of this Iranian regime, and to support Iran’s people in changing the character of their government—peacefully, politically, on their own terms, in their own ways. Of course, the United States should never provide its support where it is unrequested and unwanted—but when young Iranian demonstrators choose to write their banners of protest in English, when they chant “Obama, Obama, are you with us, or are you with them?” it is a pretty good indication that we can do more, and should do more, to support their incontrovertibly just cause.
We—the government and the people of the United States—need to stand up for the Iranian people. We need to make their goals our goals, their interests our interests, their work our work. We need a grand national undertaking to broadcast information freely into Iran, and to help Iranians access the tools to evade their government’s censorship of the Internet. We need to let the political prisoners in Iran’s gruesome prisons know that they are not alone, that their names and their cases are known to us, and that we will hold their torturers and tormentors accountable for their crimes. We need to publicize the names of Iran’s human rights abusers, and we need to make them famous. Then we need to impose crippling sanctions on them for their human rights abuses—to go after their assets, their ability to travel, and their access to the international financial system, which is exactly the goal of legislation that I and others have proposed.
It is one thing for members of Congress to lead this effort; but it would be quite another thing to have that leadership unequivocally from the President himself. The United States has never had a president whose personal story resonates as strongly overseas as President Obama’s does. His ability to inspire, to move people, to mobilize them on behalf of democratic change is one of the greatest untapped sources of strength now available to Iran’s human rights activists. If President Obama were to unleash America’s full moral power to support the Iranian people—if he were to make their quest for democracy into the civil rights struggle of our time—it could bolster their will to endure in their struggle, and the result could be genuinely historic.
If there were ever any doubt about the possibility that Iran will have a democratic future, the birth of the Green Movement over the past year should lay that doubt to rest. That democratic future may be delayed for awhile, but it will not be denied. And now is the time for the United States to position ourselves squarely on the right side of Iranian history—on the side of courageous Iranian reformers such as Shiva Nazar Ahari. Shiva was first arrested on September 11, 2001, at the age of 17, for the heinous act of participating in a candlelight vigil for the victims of that day of terror. After her release, she continued her human rights activism, until she was detained again in the wake of last year’s election. Shiva now faces the baseless charge of supporting terrorism—a charge that carries the penalty of death. June 10 is Shiva’s birthday. She is only 26. She spent this birthday, like so many before it, unjustly detained in Iran’s most notorious prison—locked in a cage so small that, last we heard, she cannot fully move her arms and legs.
Shiva Nazar Ahari represents the future of Iran, and all that could be best about it—its decency, its peacefulness, its commitment to dignity and justice for all. Shiva, and all of Iran’s prisoners of conscience, must know that they are not alone in their struggle for democracy, and their desire to change their government. America stands with them, as we do with all who seek a better future for Iran. The Green Movement lives on. Eventually—maybe not tomorrow or next year or even the year after that, but eventually—Iranians will achieve the democratic changes they seek for their country. The Iranian regime may appear intimidating now, but it is rotting inside. It has only brute force and fear to sustain it, and Iranians won’t be afraid forever.
A different version of this article was delivered to the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington DC on June 10.
John McCain is a United States senator from Arizona.