Since the Carter Administration's disastrous decision to undermine the Shah of Iran, ultimately leading to his ouster in 1979, the United States has had a sketchy and inconsistent record of support for the Iranian people. To be sure, the citizens of Iran are in no way represented by the theocratic regime that began with the first Supreme Ayatollah Khomeini and has persisted ever since. Even in 1979, Iranians were generally sympathetic toward Western ideals of democracy and personal freedom, and their discontent has only grown since. Today, a majority of Iran's population is young (under 35 years of age), and with youth comes progressive politics not amenable to absolute religious rule in government. That is to say, most of the people in Iran don't want the government they have. Why then has the United States, which prides itself on being a beacon of liberty for the oppressed all over the world, failed to be a consistent ally to those who toil in bondage to their tyrannical regime?
In the days since the Islamic Revolution, now over four decades ago, most American support for Iranians desiring freedom has come from Republicans, while in general, Democrats have been either silent on this important issue, or actively working on the wrong side of it. President Barack Obama, for example, never lifted a political finger to assist the Iranian people during his eight years in office, even as the demonstrations going on in Iran at the time made it clear that his help was desperately needed. Going further back, Bill Clinton in the 1990s expressed support for "reformers" in Iran who were nothing of the sort, merely pretending to want change while in fact supporting the same kinds of theocratic policies and barbarities that had endured since '79. This is, of course, worse than doing nothing, since electing "fake" voices of reform can and has legitimized the regime, and taken the edge off worldwide criticisms of that oppressive government. At least "something" is being done, right?
Needless to say, the current crop of Democratic candidates have continued the move back to "business as usual" started by Obama, remaining deafeningly silent on Iranian freedom at a crucial time in that nation's history.
To be sure, there can be little doubt that the people of Iran are trying to make their voices heard, as is discernible from the public demonstrations they have held with an increasing frequency almost since the Islamic Revolution itself. The most internationally famous of these was the Green Movement which began in 2009, in response to the obviously-rigged presidential election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was highly unpopular in Iran at the time yet somehow managed to "win" at the ballot box. The protests were wildly successful, such that they expanded beyond the single issue of the election, and became a movement for freedom itself and the empowerment of the Iranian people. There were many other instances of Iranians taking to the streets as well, in 1999, 2001, just last year in 2019, and countless others.
Virtually all popular demonstrations against the government of Iran have been nonviolent, yet the same cannot be said for the regime's reaction. At a minimum, protesters risk arrest and imprisonment on a scale that should horrify any Westerner witnessing it, but this is the least of the danger. People demanding their freedom have been beaten in the streets by police had tear gas thrown at them, and in some cases, have even been fired upon by plainclothes gunmen loyal to the theocracy. Women have been shoved to the ground for daring to go out in public without their hijab (traditional Muslim veil), or have even been the victims of acid attacks.
In the face of this level of stark barbarity, the inconsistent support of the United States is nothing short of criminal. It is also dangerous. By offering tepid help and encouragement, standing with the protesters sometimes and abandoning them at others, the US leaves Iranians uncertain of their prospects for American backing. Today they enjoy aid from the world's most powerful democracy, yet tomorrow they may be left out in the cold. How can they move forward when they cannot trust their own allies?
Additionally, wavering American support is internationally embarrassing for the United States. Is this not the nation that lectures the rest of the world on every human being's right to be free from government oppression, and loudly proclaims that it has fought wars to liberate people who were not strictly their countrymen? Where does it leave these vaunted guardians of human dignity when they cannot decide whether to sit or stand in the presence of one of the world's most brutal theocratic dictatorships?
None of which, of course, should be taken to imply that the solution to Iran's immense administrative crisis should be a violent one. Certainly, no outside nation, the United States included, should intervene militarily within Iran. This would be yet another Middle East quagmire for the US and a total disaster for the Iranian people, who would be the first to suffer from such a policy. Similarly, economic sanctions are no answer either, for much the same reasons: It is not the theocratic regime that will feel their effects, but the people simply trying to survive and be free.
Nevertheless, there is much the US can and should do. Supporting the development of ever-more advanced communications technology in Iran is perhaps the single greatest threat to that country's religious dictatorship, more than any missile. It has already empowered the Iranian resistance by enabling them to more easily talk and share ideas with each other, as well as to plan activities that the government won't know about until it's too late. It also helps the sphere of sanity to grow – as George Orwell pointed out, totalitarian regimes can only maintain an iron grip on their people when those people are not permitted to know that freedom exists, and that others in the world are free.
The people in Iran know very well that freedom is real. They only need our help, our reliable, consistent help, to achieve it.