The Barricades to Freedom in Iran

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad overshadowed opposition protests by declaring Iran a nuclear state Thursday. But Azadeh Moaveni says reformers should also beware of strong global foes—from exiled Iranians to Western pundits, Arab states to Al Jazeera.

To the hundreds of thousands of Iranians who aspire to democracy and now regularly pour into the streets to prove it, there is no higher sabotage than their government's nuclear brinkmanship. At virtually every important juncture when the country's opposition movement has commanded the world's attention, the regime has cleverly diverted the news cycle with some terrifying-sounding claim about its nuclear program. That now familiar dynamic is shaping the world's reaction to the news emerging Thursday from Iran. With anti-government protesters skirmishing with police in neighborhoods throughout the city, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that Iran had become a nuclear state. Better to remind the world just what sort of scary, uranium-enriching country stands the risk of being destabilized by its would-be democrats.

The world tends to gaze smilingly on vibrant, youth-led democracy movements, but Iran's Green opposition will have to contend with its international foes.

What’s Happening in Iran: Photos, Video, Dispatches The government's well-timed nuclear revelations are not all the country's opposition must contend with. In the eight months that have passed since Iran's post-election protest swelled into a full-fledged uprising, the country's so-called Green Movement has made powerful enemies, from Western pundits to diaspora Iranians, disapproving Arab states to entire television networks. If Lebanon's short-lived, 2005 "Cedar Revolution" inspired international attention all out of proportion to its heft and potential, then Iran's Green Movement suffers from precisely the opposite problem: It captures headlines only once a month, and in between gets disparaged by an influential cast of critics eager to see it fizzle.

Iranian Americans might seem natural supporters of a movement that would, among other things, make it easier for their grandmothers to come visit without getting whisked off to Homeland Security for interrogation. But diaspora Iranians live in constant dread that opposition groups in exile—monarchists and the Mujaheddin-e Khalgh (MKO)—will step in to exploit and hijack any democratic movement that takes shape in Iran. Though these groups lobby Washington aggressively and present themselves to the West as popular opponents of the Tehran regime, they are viewed by most Iranians as discredited and irrelevant, and in the case of the MKO, freakishly cult-like. Iranian Americans’ outright hatred for these groups runs so deep that it often shades their attitude toward the Green Movement. It inclines many prominent diaspora figures to overlook how the opposition has spread throughout the country and to prematurely spell its demise. Iranian-American skeptics of the Green Movement would do better to educate people about the bankruptcy of the exiled opposition, rather than to convince the West that Iran's opposition is over before it started.

The Arab Gulf states also eye the Green Movement warily, nervous about what democratic, economically prosperous Iran might portend for their own future. States like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait stand to lose significantly should Iran emerge from its self-inflicted isolation.

Their camaraderie with the United States is largely based on a mutual enmity with Iran, and their value to Washington would diminish significantly should a democratic, moderate Iran assume a role in the region commensurate with its size, skilled population, and vast natural resources. Countries like Egypt and Syria are also loath for their restive populations to watch a democratic uprising challenge an unpopular government next door. Just as the Iranian revolution of 1979 inspired Islamic radicalism across the Arab world, a successful Green uprising would also spell trouble for the authoritarian Arab status quo.

Across the media landscape, the Green Movement faces two intractable foes: Iranian state television, which broadcasts pro-government propaganda masquerading as news, and Al Jazeera, which often does the same about 30 minutes later. Ever since the 1999 student protests at Tehran University, Al Jazeera has either ignored or minimized any popular challenge to the Iranian government. The channel's Tehran bureau chiefs have tended to share with the Iranian regime both political ideology and blood relatives. The coverage has on occasion grown so radical that moderate officials in Tehran have cut off the bureau chief's access for growing "too Bin Ladenist." Al Jazeera English has calibrated its coverage of the June election and the protests with more sophistication, but a similar bias still runs through its reporting on Iran. Watching its coverage, you could be forgiven for thinking that the jury is still out on whether the Green Movement is actually an elaborate Israeli-American plot abetted by the Western media. The network would argue that it must make compromises to keep its Tehran bureau open at a time when many media outlets have been shut down altogether. But there's little dignity in distorting the story just to stay on the ground.

From within the American pundit establishment, Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett—both former National Security Council staffers—have lined up against the Green Movement from its infancy. In the immediate wake of the June election, they published an op-ed entitled " Ahmadinejad Won, Get Over It," chiding those who questioned how a president who bludgeoned his country's economy might have been reelected by such an enormous margin. Even now, eight months into the Iranian people's refusal to get over it, the Leveretts are still arguing that pro-Ahmadinejad Iran dwarfs Green-Iran. To that end, they actually cite the government's own estimates of crowd attendance at pro-regime rallies, and argue that the majority of Iranians subscribe to President Mahmoud Ahamdinejad's fundamentalist world-view. In an interview with Haaretz, Mann Leverett claims that Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial rhetoric wins him great popularity in Iran. In all likelihood the Leveretts have never stepped foot inside the country, because anyone who has spent a day in Iran talking to people about their government's support for groups like Hamas know this couldn't be true. The contemptuous image of Iranians that emerges from the Leveretts' analysis—stupid zealots, eager to suffer sometimes triple-digit inflation for the sake of baiting Israel with hateful Holocaust denial—is disturbing and wrong, if not borderline racist. The couple is now probably the Iranian regime's favorite Americans, after, of course, Jimmy Carter.

The world tends to gaze smilingly on vibrant, youth-led democracy movements, but Iran's Green opposition will have to contend with its international foes, along with the Iranian government itself, in the weeks and months ahead.

Azadeh Moaveni has reported on Iran for Time magazine and other publications since 1999. She is the author of Lipstick Jihad, the co-author of Shirin Ebadi’s memoir Iran Awakening, and most recently, Honeymoon in Tehran.