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7 Ways to Support Iranian Democracy

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Demonstration in Tehran, Iran, on June 18, 2009.

Photo by Hamed Saber.

On September 23, Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the United Nation's General Assembly. Iranian pro-democracy groups and human rights organizations  converged on this event, asking world leaders and media not to recognize Ahmadinejad as Iran's leader until his election is proven without a doubt and all political prisoners are released. Since Iran's June 12th election, many concerned Westerners have watched the ensuing protests and unrest, been inspired by the bravery they saw, and then asked themselves what, if anything, they could do to help.

This is a hard question. History has demonstrated that involvement by the U.S. government—either official or indirect—will only hurt grassroots democracy movements. As Stephen Zunes wrote just after the election, "the best hope for Iran comes from Iranian civil society. It is the Iranian people alone who have the right and the capability to reform or bring down the country's increasingly illegitimate regime and establish a more just and democratic society.”

I agree. However, as individual members of our own civil society, there is much we can do to support Iran's quest for better treatment by its leaders and for a stronger democracy. We can offer support and friendship as Iran takes its own brave steps toward freedom.

Focus on Election Reform within Iran

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Silent demonstration in Tehran, Iran, on June 16, 2009.

Photo by Milad Avazbeigi.

Rather than getting caught up with schemes of “regime change” or even with arguments of whether or not Ahmadinejad rightfully won the presidency, we can focus on the indisputable events of the past three months. After the election, masses of people took to the streets throughout Iran in protest of the results, most notably on June 16th when a massive civil protest marched on Tehran's Azadi Square. There were, of course, many young people in attendance, but protesters were remarkably diverse—older people, working class, upper class, traditional conservatives and liberals. After the protests became dangerous because of random Basij (Iran's paramilitary group) attacks and beatings in the street, the protesters were understandably younger. But I've heard accounts from friends who escaped Basij crackdowns through strangers' open doors—strangers of all ages, some wearing traditional Islamic covering, others in Western dress.

The May 2009 poll conducted by Terror Free Tomorrow, often cited to justify the legitimacy of Ahmadinejad's re-election, has some less reported, but more revealing results. Seventy-seven percent of respondents “support a political system for governing Iran where the Supreme Leader can be chosen and replaced by a free and direct vote of the people.” Like the Pope, Iran's Supreme Leader is believed to speak for God: vetting candidates for elections, setting limits on behavior, and interpreting religious law. The Supreme Leader is appointed for life by an “Assembly of Experts,” appointed by the previous Supreme Leader or elected from a pool of candidates vetted by the same people. While this change may seem slight to us, it could effectively and gracefully move Iran closer to democracy. Whether or not this happens, these poll results and the election fallout indicate that the Iranian people are strongly in favor of electoral reforms.

  • One way for Westerners to support reform is to support the call for transparency surrounding the recent election. On July 25th, the international group United 4 Iran held a rally in Amsterdam at which Iranian Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi called for a new Iranian election under the supervision of the UN; a request she made again in front of the United Nations. The U.S.-based group Where is My Vote is also requesting a recast of the election and asking “governments as well as the mainstream news outlets around the world [to]...refrain from recognizing the 'official' results.”
  • Besides joining these protest groups or attending rallies in your area, you can sign petitions. One of the largest is a petition to the UN in support of Ebadi's request.

Focus on Human Rights

The crackdown on demonstrators gave way to reports of arrests and abuse within Iranian prisons. The lists of missing detainees and of protesters killed in prisons is still growing. Keeping attention on Iran's human rights abuses is key and is one issue Western governments can focus on without overstepping Iranian sovereignty.

According to The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, “the U.S. government needs to put human rights at the forefront of its relations with Iran....[and] press Iran to fulfill its legal obligations as a party to international human rights covenants....if the U.S. works within the international system to promote human rights it won't be seen as politicizing the issue or demanding that Iran conform to U.S. standards, but rather its own promises.”

  • Mahmood Amiry Moghaddam of Netherlands-based Iran Human Rights agrees, saying "we should ask our governments to acknowledge that what the Iranian people are demanding is their legitimate rights.” He also suggests that we request that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad not be allowed to visit the UN because of the human rights abuses ongoing in Iran. “Why should [the] UN invite him while the Iranian regime doesn't let UN's special reporters to visit Iran and Iranian prisons?”
  • The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran and Amnesty International are circulating petitions aimed at the UN and Iranian embassies, asking them to step in to help stop human rights abuses.
  • All three groups are working hard to document incidents of abuse, record the names of those detained and monitor their status, and push for the enforcement of international human rights covenants. They rely on donations to do this. According to the Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, “All independent human rights organizations, but especially small ones like our Campaign that do not take government funding, are in a precarious financial situation and depend on support from individuals and private foundations.“ If you would like to donate or volunteer you can contact any of the above groups through their websites.

Help Keep the News Flowing, Both Inside and Outside of Iran

Almost all media within Iran is censored by the government. Print media that is too critical of the ruling theocracy is immediately shut down. The national television and radio airwaves, called the IRIB, are entirely government controlled. Many Iranians rely on illegal satellite dishes to watch news and programming produced by diaspora groups in the West, or supplement their news with Internet radio or blogs. According to the Terror Free Tomorrow poll, approximately 80 percent of respondents wanted to see Iran develop a free press. That frustration only grew following the IRIB's coverage of the election; many Iranians are now channeling their frustration into a growing boycott of products advertising on TV. There have also been repeated grassroots attempts to black out the evening news by a coordinated overload of city power grids.

It's imperative that news of protests, arrests, and human rights abuses continue to be reliably reported, both to those within Iran and to the world. Many reports of the systematic rape of protesters held in the prisons have been documented and widely disseminated over the web—but not by the IRIB. The reports and videos of abuse prompted a public outcry within Iran and the request for an official investigation into the matter by some of the country's leading clerics—a reaction dependent on the free flow of information through uncensored media.

  • Blogger Mehdi Saharkhiz suggests one way to help keep people informed is by volunteering for aggregate sites or on-line bulletin boards with relevant chat rooms. These groups need IT support and Farsi speakers to translate articles—something that can be done anywhere. Sites such as Where is My Vote collect articles and information; a Facebook group dedicated to translating relevant articles is looking for volunteer translators. Contact Mehdi for names of sites that are currently in need of volunteers.

Support Free Internet Access within Iran

The use of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to organize protests and to report news has illustrated how tech-savvy Iran's pro-democracy movement is—and how much it relies on the Internet and other new media technology to organize and collect information. As with other media, Internet use within Iran is heavily restricted; text messages are also monitored. In fact, many people in Iran are boycotting the Nokia-Siemens Company because, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal, they sold “deep-packet search technology” to the Iranian government. Boycotters aledge that this allowed government agencies to monitor cell phone calls, text messages, and Twitter accounts, leading to the arrests of many protesters.

  • In response to this Internet censorship, programmers in Iran and elsewhere are developing new ways to break through or bypass filters. One successful method is to set up proxy servers allowing users within Iran free access to the Internet by connecting through donated servers in other countries with less restrictive policies. Volunteer programmers to provide IT support as well as donated servers and bandwidth are in great demand. Contact Mehdi Saharkhiz for information on groups who currently need help.
  • The Haystack Project for Iran is attempting to go beyond proxy servers by developing a program to completely disguise all Internet traffic—making it almost impossible for governments to monitor Internet traffic.

Get Informed

The animosity and misunderstanding between Iran and the West has thrived on our mutual ignorance. The daily lives and rich culture of the Iranian people are largely hidden behind the news headlines.

  • Westerners can learn more about Iranian life in a number of ways: Finding the faces beyond the news in photos from Iran, the plethora of Iranian movies out on DVD, Rick Steve's recent travelogue, websites such as Payvand that provide news and analysis of current events in Iran from Iranians living abroad.

  • It's also important to understand Iran's modern history. There are many books written about the past century in Iran from a personal angle. Shirin Ebadi's Iran Awakening and Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita In Tehran were both bestsellers; many others await you on library shelves. Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert for the Carnegie Endowment has written extensively on Iran's recent history, giving clear context to current events.

  • Exploring and enjoying the country's rich cultural heritage such as Iran's timeless poetry is another way to replace media stereotypes.

Think Creatively about What You Have to Offer

Iran ActivismOne volunteer I spoke with, Peter Azadi, suggests that once people "better inform themselves... they assess their individual strengths and are creative in putting those to work for the cause.” Like many this summer, watching the protester Neda's death on video and hearing other reports of human rights abuses left Peter outraged. He tried to think of a way to contribute his expertise to the cause and began the website Iran Justice, a place for people to share their creative writing about recent events. That lead to his involvement with the New York chapter of Where is My Vote, where he is now the volunteer coordinator.

  • After many protesters and reformists were arrested, the IRIB broadcast mass trials and then the confessions (often read from paper on camera) of detainees. According to The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, none of the detainees had any legal representation. They, as well as most other human rights groups, suspect that the confessions were coerced. Many confessions blamed the uprising on the BBC or other foreign involvement; many of those on trial or confessing looked haggard or abused. Most had lost significant amounts of weight. In response, the website “Hey Dictator! Watch Me Confess!” emerged. It gives people in and outside of Iran a way to vent their frustrations and outrage by allowing them to film and upload their own mock “confessions.” The fact that Westerners are watching these confessions, contributing their own, and commenting on others has contributed to their popularity within Iran.
  • Since the government suppression of the large public rallies, the pro-democracy movement within Iran has become equally creative. Flash mobs of 35-50 people arrange to meet in a public space, begin chanting and encouraging onlookers to join them, and then disperse before police come. People write pro-democracy slogans on money or government bulletin boards, or try to identify and publicly shame Basij members. At night, people take to their rooftops shouting their protest: “Allah Akbar” which means “God is Great.”
  • There are just as many ways those of us moved to help can contribute. According to Azadi, “most organizations in the USA are starved for talent in many areas, such as graphic design, web construction, fund-raising, PR, event planning, audio/visual, printing, writing, research, community outreach advertising, lobbying, bookkeeping, etc.” Julia, a blogger who translates Iranian news into German, suggests attending protests and rallies and making connections there. “Just get started somehow. If your heart is in it, you will find ways to do things,” she says.

Reach Out

In the end, the most important thing Americans can give is our moral support. I have conducted many interviews with activists in and outside of Iran and spoken to many more friends throughout the country; all have expressed to me that the mood in Iran is very bleak. However, most have also commented that spirits are lifted by the fact that the world sees what is happening in their country.

  • Even the smallest gestures in this regard can be uplifting. Commenting on YouTube videos or in chat rooms, attending rallies or cultural events in your area, displaying signs, or even just wearing green in solidarity give many Iranians who read about these actions online the motivation they need to continue.
  • In the words of the blogger Julia, “What we can do is mostly of symbolic nature, but I have learned that that can have a big meaning. Find ways to let people in Iran know that you are with them and working for them. Take photos and videos, spread them on YouTube via your Iranian friends so they can pass it on to their relatives and friends at home.”

Ultimately, this summer's protests may leave a wider legacy than a more democratic Iran. It may also lie in a nascent shift in attitude by Americans, best expressed in a comment I found by an American in an online chatroom: “Can you believe Bush wanted to bomb these people?” Those protesters on the streets of Tehran, Isfahan, and other Iranian cities were acting for their own benefit, but they may have done us all a favor. By helping us understand that Iran is a complex country with a rich, varied populace and one with which we share many values, they may have given us the best opening for intercultural dialogue we've had since the 1979 revolution. They may have given us a chance to take the conversation back from our stalemated leaders. And most of all, they have reminded us how valuable, and how powerful, real democracy can be.


Mary Armstrong author picMary Angeles Armstrong wrote this article for YES! Magazine.  Mary is a New York based writer.  She is an Iranian citizen through marriage and was honored to vote in the June election.

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