How best to help the Iranian dissidents? George Packer suggests that they need our aid and encouragement and that, despite what many people think, we shouldn't worry too much about any putative backlash. In one sense this is fair enough, given that the regime is blaming outside interests for whipping up dissent anyway. But, well, first here's what Packer has to say:
Again, there's something to this. But I also think - respectfully since I'm pretty certain that Packer knows many more Iranians than I do - that there's something missing. That is, perhaps the most important people in this propaganda struggle - for, among other things, that is what it is - are not actually those brave Iranians marching in the street and, literally, shouting from the rooftops? Perhaps it is the people in the undecided middle who matter most? The people who haven't taken to the streets - in support of either side - matter too and, who knows, they may help decide the outcome.“
A number of writers seem to know exactly what the Iranians in the streets want from us, and what they want is for us to stay out of it. I wonder how many Iranians these writers have talked to. But even if you don’t have Iranian contacts, you can still try to imagine your way into the situation of the protesters. Every day you have to summon the courage to go out into the streets (where the death toll is now reportedly at thirty-two), and your awareness of international opinion is steadily diminishing as Internet and phone access is choked off. A part of your mind is alert to the danger of being labeled an American agent, always a factor in the regime’s propaganda; but given the enormous risks you’re already running, a much larger part of your mind is afraid that the world is going to lose interest or write you off, that the regime is going to stop feeling any international pressure to behave with restraint, and that when the guns start mowing protesters down in earnest, no one will be watching. When the stakes are this high, being the object of too much foreign concern is not likely to be your number one fear.
So, in the spirit of imagination Packer calls for, I picture those Iranians who fear Iran is on the wrong track but who remain unconvinced that the protests can survive for very much longer, let alone win. And I imagine Iranians who, despite their sympathy for the reformers, are also sympathetic to nationalistic overtures and who might feel themselves torn between the spirit of reform and the sense that outside powers are revelling in Iranian discomfort and, who knows, perhaps seeking to undermine Iran itself.
These - in my imagination anyway - are people deeply uncomfortable with having to make a choice between their instinct for change and their belief in their country. They might be concerned by any foreign interference that, however unfairly, might be perceived as being motivated by anti-Iranian animus. If forced, or believing themselves forced, to choose between party and country they may choose country. If that's the case, it would seem sensible to give the regime as little ammunition as possible. The regime will claim that there's an international conspiracy anyway, but that doesn't mean that the United States should give that claim greater credibility than it might otherwise enjoy.
In other words, the voices we haven't heard yet also matter. And, in fact, they, and the decisions they take, may end up deciding the outcome of this drama. Which is why I think I'd disagree with Packer or, at least, suggest that there are other audiences and other people that need to be borne in mind, not just the gallant protestors already marching in the streets of Tehran and other cities.