The XX Factor

The Agony and Ecstasy of Revolution

I experienced yet another burst of joy on behalf of Iranians today as I read this dispatch about the meaning-and more importantly, the feeling-of the post-election demonstrations. The piece, by an Iranian student named Shane M., is very good until the last four paragraphs, when it becomes astonishing. The writer paints an image of a country surprised by itself-by its own spirit and audacity and modernity and intellectualism-and by the dramatic pace of change that was supposed to unfold slowly, almost imperceptibly, until it snowballed. The demonstrations and their attendant forced mixing are described as impromptu street parties, with boys dancing in the headlights of parked cars and a girl hanging out a window like Daisy in the Dukes of Hazzard . “Everyone watched everyone else and we wondered how all of this could be happening. Who were all of these people? Where did they come from?” Shane asks. “These were the same people we pass by unknowingly every day. We saw one another, it feels, for the first time.”

I haven’t been to Iran, though I have tried, and will keep trying, to get there. But in my conversations with Iranians in the U.S. and Afghanistan, I’m always struck by the immense, coiled power that the country-and Persian culture more broadly-seems to hold at its center. There’s that big intelligence, a profound spiritual and aesthetic awareness and a worldview that feels seasoned by centuries of experience, as if the Iranian people were truly the inheritors of their ancestors’ memories. This is why, especially in the case of Iran, I’m against U.S. intervention (and by that I do mainly mean military intervention, Anne , but I mean other things as well, of which more in a minute). It’s not that I’m a pacifist. It’s that I think real change takes time, and that if any country contains within its borders the ingredients of democratic revolution-and if any country understands the merits of a slow burn-Iran does. I don’t think Obama should take up the cause of the protesters more forcefully because I don’t think that will help them. It will weaken their argument, giving cover to the old guard, as others have said, to write them off as Western puppets, which is profoundly not the case. This is an indigenous upwelling of political and social feeling whose strength and longevity have surprised even Iranians, as Shane tells us.

I completely agree, Anne, that there is room for softer forms of U.S. intervention in Iran and places like it. I appreciate the work of Radio Farda and other outlets and groups, including those funded by the U.S. and other Western governments. But like you, I think we’ve lost our touch at this, and I think that ham-handed attempts at StratCom, like some the Bush administration rolled out in Iraq, hurt more than they help. (It should be said that paying Iraqi journalists for positive stories was a Pentagon initiative, and part of the problem here is, of course, the total Pentagon-ization of our foreign policy, which I think is part of what you’re driving at when you say we’ve gotten worse at this kind of thing of late.) That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be more funding, effort and energy devoted to these efforts-I think there should be.

But we’re not there yet. We’re not even where we were during the Cold War. Although you can now follow the activities of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan on Twitter , YouTube, and Facebook (so they say, though I can’t locate their page), we are just beginning to learn how to use the newest forms of new media, and we still don’t know what story to tell about ourselves when we start tweeting. As for democracy at the point of a gun, I would never suggest that Afghans and Iraqis were anything but overjoyed to vote. But the fact remains that in both those places, we didn’t let political change happen at its own pace, and when a political system doesn’t evolve organically, the forces opposing change get a boost. You could argue that we couldn’t afford to wait for organic democracy to emerge in Afghanistan or Iraq. But that unfortunately doesn’t bring those countries closer to what I hope Iran will achieve at some point: an internal democratic revolution that can be claimed and celebrated as authentic and indigenous to the core.