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April 13, 2005, 7:55 a.m.

Iran’s Tomorrow

Supporting the freedom seekers.

You might have the impression that Ivy League "neoconservatives" wearing pinstripe suits inside the wonky think tanks in Washington, D.C., are currently plotting the overthrow of the mullahs running Iran. They and their hawkish Pentagon pals have checked the box next to Iraq on their to-do list (now that elections have happened), and are strategizing the best way to take down the tyranny in Iran. (Then we'll move on to Syria, and get ready for the draft, folks, we're fixing the world!)

But that image couldn't be further from the truth. Some of those Beltway types are cheering from the sidelines, but they are merely cheerleaders for the Iranian kids who are ready and willing to do the heavy lifting.

It's that band of youth clamoring for a new day in Iran. They do it in the streets of Tehran, and on the Internet on their blogs.

They're willing to put their lives on the line — speaking out can be a dangerous business. As one student writing under an alias has put it: "we will continue to shed our blood, if that is what it takes to obtain the freedom we seek."

Iranian youth, who make up 50-70 percent of the Iranian population, are determined to live in a country where they can be Reading Lolita in Tehran and really elect their leaders. Iranian students, leaders and dissidents face imprisonment — like blogger 28-year-old Arash Sigarchi, sentenced earlier this year to 14 years in jail for daring to criticize the government for locking up journalists and bloggers. (Talk about someone who knew what he was in for.) According to Michael Rubin, editor of The Middle East Quarterly, Iranian hardliners approach this inter-generational struggle with a vicious "win-win strategy."

"They beat students, close papers, and imprison bloggers. If they get away with it, they win," explains Rubin. "If they go too far, as they did in the 1999 dormitory attack (which sparked off several street riots), then they have an excuse to really crack down. And if Washington doesn't respond, then they've won."

But the proud Persian youth have no intention of letting the mullahcracy status quo remain. Iranians, says Rubin, "see Afghans and Iraqis getting somewhere with democracy while they are stuck with the mullahs."

These realities seem lost on much of America's Mainstream Media. To some extent, the lack of coverage has something to do with Iran's closed society, but not completely. Sometimes journalists seem blind to eruptions right under their noses.

What's the excuse for the International Herald Tribune's treating street battles in late March as mere soccer riots, covered by their sports-beat guy, in a country where crackdowns have been common since the bloody 1999 student protester brutalization and since Iran was branded part of the "Axis of Evil?" Willful blindness?

In a much-noted 2003 speech, President Bush said, "In Iran the demand for democracy is strong and broad ... The regime in Tehran must heed the democratic demands of the Iranian people, or lose its last claim to legitimacy."

But the whole Bush team has not been reading from the same talking points. It was a senior State Department diplomat, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who in the same year bizarrely called the Iranian regime "a democracy."

Rubin says Armitage's remark "set back the reform movement by two or three years. It really deflated morale."

"There needs to be a unified message to support us," coming from the United States, Iranian dissident Ghassem Sholeh Sadi told The New York Sun recently in an interview about reform-minded Iranians' push for a constitutional referendum this summer.

Michael Ledeen — one of those wonky "neocons" from the American Enterprise Institute (and a regular NRO-er) — has a wish list for Iran, but it isn't a massive army going invading the country or the dangerous pacifism of Armitage, either.

Ledeen wants serious "criticism of their regime from our leaders." Americans should know the names of the Iranian dissidents. Ledeen encourages "calls for the release of political prisoners — by name." America can help the reform movement in Iran, he says, through "broadcasts, both from official and private radios and televisions, explaining the basic methods of non-violent conflict; financial support to build a strike fund for workers, teachers and students."

"Those are the minimum things," Ledeen underscores. "Plus get them good communications devices, servers, laptops, cell phones, etc." In other words, they need a rhetorical boost from the leader of the free world, and they need some tools.

Of course if Iran goes nuclear (assuming the country hasn't already) it would mean an end to any hope of reform, according to Rubin. "If the mullahs get the bomb, the Iranian people will get 10 Tiananmen Squares."

Can there be any question that supporting the youthful breath of fresh air in Iran is the right thing to do? That's got to be our hardline stand.

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