Iran’s Green Movement, One Year Later

Jun 18, 2010

Update from AIJAC

June 18, 2010
Number 06/10 #06

With this week marking the first anniversary of Iran’s fraudulent Presidential election and the mass “Green Movement” protests it sparked, this Update features a sampling of some of the many pieces commenting on the significance of events in Iran over the past year.

First up is the always eloquent and learned American Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami, who says that the repressive powers of the regime appear to be carrying the day, and that one could say that a crueler, more nakedly oppressive new version of the Islamic Republic has arisen. He argues that the regime had the power of oil money to buy repression and patronage at their disposal and moreover,  dissidents and reformers are acting against a bleak and unhelpful international landscape. Here he cites Russian and Chinese support for the regime, and  in particular, a US Administration caught flat-footed, unwilling to even speak out strongly after having banked on “engagement” with the regime. For Ajami’s beautifully-crafted requiem for the Green Movement, CLICK HERE. Agreeing with Ajami that the Green Movement now appears to be failing in the face of overwhelming repression  is Wall Street Journal foreign affairs columnist Bret Stephens.

Next up is Reuel Marc Gerecht, an analyst who formerly worked on the CIA’s Iran desk, who offers a more positive view of the Green Movement’s achievements, arguing the regime is now “permanently unstable.” He looks in particular at the unprecedented appeal of liberal democracy to Iran’s Green Movement, as an example discussing  the history of Iranian intellectual interest in the works of noted liberal philosopher Karl Popper. He is also critical of the Obama Administration’s approach to the Green Movement and makes a concrete suggestion that he says reflects what the protest leaders say they need: communications support in the form of satellite-fed Internet connections across the country. For his complete analysis of how this could be done cheaply and yet be highly effective, CLICK HERE. Backing up Gerecht’s claim about the regime’s permanent instability is author Ali Anseri, who notes growing doubts about the legitimacy of the regime in the ranks of the increasingly powerful Revolutionary Guards.

Finally, analysts Mark Dubowitz and Benjamin Weinthal argue that the way to help the Green Movement is to impose sanctions directed at Iran’s petroleum sector and that in fact, this is what many dissidents actually want. They say that while some Green Movement leaders publicly oppose this idea, or are reticent, this is because they do not want to be publicly blamed for any such sanctions, and that the experience of South Africa proves these forms of sanctions can be effective and induce changes in the regime’s behaviour. Dubowitz and Wienthal explore in some detail Iran’s vulnerability to such sanctions and the current debate in the US Congress about a bill designed to impose them. For their full argument, CLICK HERE. A report that the White House is trying to soften the US Congressional resolution on petroleum sanctions is here.

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Iran and the ‘Freedom Recession’

Facebook had no answer to the pro-regime vigilantes who ruled the streets. And the U.S. president, who might have helped, stood aside.


Wall Street Journal, JUNE 11, 2010

Three decades ago, before his final flight to exile, the Shah of Iran had drawn a line: He would not fire on his people. He was a king, he said, and not a dictator. The army had not yet cracked; there were loyalists keen to make a stand against the revolutionary upheaval. But the man at the center of the storm had boarded a plane, with his immediate family, in search of a country that would have him.

It’s impossible to fathom such a principled retreat by today’s “Supreme Leader,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his vast apparatus of repression and terror. If anything, a year after the fraudulent election last June 12, the theocracy is entrenched and the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij, the regime’s murderous paramilitaries, man a political order bereft of mercy and restraint. Iran was not fated to have its “velvet revolution.” The Green movement that challenged the ruling apparatus has not been able to carry the day.

Those expecting a quick deliverance for the people of Iran never fully took in the power of the regime and its instruments of repression. This wasn’t Leipzig and Budapest and Warsaw and Berlin in 1989 when the Communist despotisms gave way; this was China after Tiananmen Square.

In retrospect, it could be said that the first Islamic Republic (1979-2009) had fallen, and that a second republic, more cruel and unapologetic in its exercise of power, had risen. It wasn’t pretty that first republic, but it had pretensions to a measure of pluralism and it gave some sustenance to those in Europe and in American liberal circles who believed that the Iranian revolution was making its way to an accommodation with the international order of states.

In his seminal book “The Anatomy of Revolution,” historian Crane Brinton had sketched the progression of revolutions: their outbreak and early euphoria, the destruction of the moderates, and the triumph of the extremists as revolutions devour their own children. In the final phase, there is Thermidor—borrowed from the calendar of the French Revolution—where there is a slow return to less heroic times, and a period of convalescence. Iran was to defy that revolutionary calendar, and it now appears to have entered an apocalyptic phase; a darker night of despotism has settled upon the weary people of Iran.

A schism has opened in Iranian society: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s terrible children have turned on his garden-variety radical children. We can now see the hubris of cyber optimism, the naiveté of thinking that Twitter and Facebook and YouTube would topple a ruthless regime determined to maintain its grip on a restless nation. At the heart of it, this was and remains a brutal fight, a raw assertion of power. Facebook has no answer to the vigilantes of the Basij roaming the streets of Iran looking for prey. Twitter can’t overcome the Revolutionary Guard with the wealth and resources granted them by a command economy they have managed to organize to their own preference.

The truth of this Iranian state is straightforward: It is a petrocracy. Oil income sustains it, enables it to defy the opinions of its own people, and of people beyond. In the past year, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his allies in the bureaucracy and parliament have been pushing for a “streamlining” of the country’s extensive system of subsidies—in effect for a phasing out of price subsidies for bread, electricity, water and gasoline.

The system in place is inefficient and costly (it takes an estimated 40% of the budget to sustain the subsidies). But it isn’t a true desire for reform or economic progress that motivates President Ahmadinejad. What he and his supporters seek is a targeted system of rebates and cash transfers that would give the rulers yet greater powers to reward and to punish. This is the sword of Damocles over the opposition—an administered economy in the hands of the regime and of the Revolutionary Guard.

In the best of worlds, the struggle of Iran’s reformers would have still been a difficult undertaking. But Iran’s oppositionists labored against the background of a bleak international landscape.

Democratic struggles never occur in isolation. Freedom House tells us that there is a “freedom recession” in today’s order of nations. The world-wide economic crisis of 2008 has been a boon to authoritarianism, for pessimism and economic anxiety are the autocrats’ allies. Two of the great powers, China and Russia, are openly contemptuous of democratic norms, and China holds before others the success of its model—political autocracy and a crony-run economy.

The autocrats in Beijing and Moscow favor Iran’s rulers and partake of a worldview congenial to the regime in Tehran. Neither power cares about the conduct of Iran’s rulers at home—so wedded are both Russia and China to the principle of unfettered national sovereignty. Neither power would countenance tough, punishing sanctions on the Iranian regime. The Russians and the Chinese may have gone through the motions of imposing a fourth round of sanctions on Iran, but they did so secure in the knowledge that the Iranians will find a way around these sanctions as they have in the past.

In Iran’s larger neighborhood, the despotisms are in the saddle, and the masters of the Iranian regime can point to their alliance with Syria and Hezbollah and Hamas as evidence of their skill, of the drive that made Iran, for all practical purposes, a power of the Mediterranean.

There was once a time, not so long ago, that Turkey’s example of a successful, decent democracy could be held up as a rebuke to Iran. But that is no longer the case, as Turkey courts Iran and turns its back on its old American alliance. A regime that can tell its people that it is on the verge of becoming a nuclear power is not one to apologize for the show trials of dissidents or for the reformers hauled off to prison.

Meanwhile, America’s new standard-bearer, President Barack Obama, had come to a conviction that the pursuit of freedom in distant lands was not a legitimate American concern. From his first days in office, Mr. Obama signaled his resignation toward the despotisms of the Greater Middle East: He would take them as they come.

For the Iranian regime in particular, Mr. Obama held out the promise of “engagement.” This was to be his diplomatic showcase, the purest embodiment of his break with his predecessor’s legacy. Full of hubris about the appeal of his own biography to Muslims, Mr. Obama was certain that his diplomacy would work where George W. Bush’s hard line toward the theocracy had failed.

Then came last June’s election and an outpouring by the Iranian people for representative democracy. The Obama diplomacy was caught flatfooted by the tumult, to say the least. Mr. Obama had bet on Iran’s rulers, but a democratic opposition—in our image, speaking the language of democracy and unfurling its banners—was in the streets contesting the rulers’ will and the rulers’ truth. It was a moment of supreme embarrassment for the United States—a case of both strategic and moral failure on the part of the president.

There is no guarantee that categorical American support would have altered the outcome of the struggle between autocracy and liberty in Iran. But it shall now be part of the narrative of liberty that when Persia rose in the summer of 2009 the steward of American power ducked for cover, and that a president who prided himself on his eloquence couldn’t even find the words to tell the forces of liberty that he understood the wellsprings of their revolt.

Mr. Ajami, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, is the author of “The Foreigner’s Gift” (Free Press, 2007).

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Iran’s Revolution: Year 2


New York Times,  June 14, 2010

IN 1985 — when no case officer could even dream of widespread pro-democracy demonstrations in Tehran like those that occurred a year ago this week — I first arrived on the Iran desk in the C.I.A.’s Directorate of Operations. One of my colleagues was an older man who had entered the agency in its early days, when liberal internationalists and hawkish socialists ran most of America’s covert-action programs.

Intellectually irrepressible, softhearted (for an operative) and firmly on the political left, my colleague did not recognize national boundaries when it came to promoting human rights. He could talk for hours about why the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper, the author of “The Open Society and Its Enemies,” was the answer to Iran’s religious tyranny. He was nearly alone within the directorate in his enthusiasm and plans for doing something to help Iranians against Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s theocracy.

As it turns out, many of the intellectual heavyweights who’ve driven Iran’s ever-growing pro-democracy Green Movement also love Popper and his defense of liberal democracy. The former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, who is fascinated by (and a little fearful of) Western philosophy and the economic dynamism of liberal democracy, can’t stop writing about Popper. And the much more influential Abdolkarim Soroush, an Iranian philosopher of religion who may be the most important Muslim thinker since the 11th-century theologian al-Ghazali, also pays his respects to the Austrian in his efforts to create a faith that can thrive in a more open, democratic society.

As I consider the changes in Iran over the last year, the people who come quickly to mind are my covert-action-loving colleague, Karl Popper and the army of pro-democracy lay and clerical Iranian intellectuals who’ve been transforming their country’s culture and ethics. They are our guides to what the United States ought to be doing vis-à-vis Iran; they are also a reproach to how President Obama has so far conducted Iran policy.

Whereas the Reagan administration in the 1980s could do little to help Iranians (Ronald Reagan’s determined efforts to engage the clerical regime over the hostages in Lebanon certainly didn’t strengthen “moderates” in Tehran), Mr. Obama could do vastly more. By throwing in his lot with the freedom movement, he would surely increase the odds that we won’t have to live with a nuclear bomb controlled by virulently anti-American and anti-Semitic clerics. Democrats, once the champions of promoting pro-democracy movements, need to understand that the good that they can do for the people of Iran far exceeds the great harm that comes from doing nothing.

Yet for the United States to help, we need to first see clearly what’s been happening in Iran since Ayatollah Khomeini’s death in 1989 and over the last year. In the 1980s, when Iran’s youth were enthralled by the charismatic Khomeini, it would have been difficult to imagine that in two decades the same Muslim society would engage in the most damning critique of dictatorship ever seen in the Middle East.

One reason for this shift is the intellectual stagnation of the regime. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s spiritual adviser, Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, is influential in part because he is all that remains of a legion of first-rate minds who sincerely believed that man and God were coming together in an almost perfect union in the Islamic Republic.

The Green Movement, which is an upwelling of Iran’s enormous cultural and political transformation, is what America has long wanted to see in the Middle East, especially after 9/11: a more-or-less liberal democratic movement, increasingly secular in philosophy and political objectives, rooted in Iran’s large middle class and even larger pool of college-educated youth (a college education in Iran, where the revolution zealously opened universities to the poor, doesn’t connote any social status).

The movement is similar in its aspirations and methods to what transpired behind the Iron Curtain in the 1980s. It aims to incorporate the spiritually dispossessed, the free thinkers, the poorly paid, the young (more than 60 percent of Iran’s population is now under 30), the dissident clergy and, perhaps most important, the first-generation revolutionaries of the 1970s who have been purged by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Khomeini’s charisma-free, paranoid successor as supreme leader. The movement is also the most recent manifestation (the first being Mr. Khatami’s presidential victory in 1997) of widespread anger by women over their second-class citizenship in the Islamic Republic.

The movement is unique in Islamic history: an intellectual revolution that aims to solve peacefully and democratically the great Muslim torment over religious authenticity and cultural collaboration. How does a proud people adopt the best (and the worst) from the West and remain true to its much-loved historical identity?

The millions who voted in 1997 and 2001 for Mr. Khatami, a clerical apostle of cultural integration, were telling us that for them, this is really no longer a big problem. Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who ruled from 1941 until the revolution, failed in his dream of turning Iranians into Germans. Yet 30 years of theocracy have done an astonishing job of Westernizing Iran’s culture and political preferences.

While the riots of last June did not topple the mullahs, the Islamic Republic is now permanently unstable. Every national holiday has the potential of turning into a day of protest, and the regime must send out hundreds of thousands of security forces, as it did in the days leading up to the anniversary on Saturday.

The brutality that Ayatollah Khamenei unleashed against the Green Movement last summer — government forces have been accused of murder, torture and, most shockingly, rape — has probably cost the regime dearly among the country’s devout, the bedrock of the supreme leader’s power.

Mir Hussein Moussavi, the most prominent leader of the democracy movement, is alive and out of jail undoubtedly because the regime fears the shock waves that could come with his imprisonment or death. While many in the West casually dismiss the movement because it’s been unable to maintain huge street demonstrations, Ayatollah Khamenei has an acute grasp of how numerous his enemies are and how volatile the country remains.

Yet President Obama — who only slowly came to recognize the Green Movement as a protest against tyranny — would probably ignore Iran’s democracy movement completely if Mr. Khamenei would just deign to talk to Washington about his nuclear program. The president seems irretrievably wedded to the idea of “engagement.”

The administration is playing up the sanctions it pushed through the United Nations Security Council last week. In the White House, sanctions are seen as a calibrated and reversible form of pressure tied to Tehran’s actions. Embracing the Green Movement would be politically and morally much more problematic. The movement is no longer just about liberalizing the state: it is now all about regime change.

But this is an instance in which playing power politics offers the United States tremendous upside. Ayatollah Khamenei is far more likely to compromise on nuclear weapons if he feels he’s about to be undone by the Green Movement. Common sense — let alone a strategic and historical grasp of what is unfolding in Iran — ought to incline President Obama to back the movement’s repeatedly made request of Washington: communications support.

More specifically, the opposition needs access to satellite-fed Internet connections across the country. Unlike landline connections, satellite-dish communications are difficult for the government to shut down. Just monitoring them would be a technical nightmare for the regime. The opposition needs more access to the wide array of satellites that are accessible from Iran — including Arabsat, which was founded by the Arab League in 1976, and France’s Eutelsat.

THE democracy movement also needs a large supply of digital-video broadcasting cards, which function much like prepaid telephone cards and allow downloading and uploading of digital content from satellites. The Green Movement’s technology experts have done back-of-the-envelope calculations: just $50 million per year could open the entire country to the Internet. Millions less would still allow the diverse range of pro-democracy groups to communicate with each other and more effectively counter the regime’s security forces. Compared to what the United States peacefully did to help anti-Communists during the cold war, such aid would be a pittance, financially and operationally.

Just a week before Iran’s elections last summer, Mr. Obama gave his speech to the Muslim world from Cairo. In it, he spoke about “the harmony between tradition and progress” in Islam by juxtaposing Egypt’s oldest center of religious learning, Al Azhar University, with Cairo University, once one of the region’s finest secular institutions. But these two universities, and what they represent, have been in a tug-of-war for over a century.

It was this lack of harmony — the constant tension between the Muslim search for authenticity and the Muslim love of Westernization — that destroyed Mohammad Khatami’s reformist presidency in Iran. The principal battle is not between “us” and “them,” but within Islam itself. Yet President Obama doesn’t seem to grasp that the United States is unavoidably part of this increasingly violent struggle. And we really do want one side to win: the friends of Karl Popper.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is a former Middle Eastern specialist in the C.I.A.’s clandestine service.

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Disrupt Iran’s Oil Trade, Aid the Green Movement

Sanctions helped South Africa’s pro-democracy movement. They can do the same in Iran.

By Mark Dubowitz and Benjamin Weinthal

Posted Thursday, June 10, 2010, at 9:33 AM ET

Conventional wisdom has it that imposing harsher energy sanctions on the Iranian regime will have little effect on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the entity largely responsible for Iran’s illicit nuclear program and for the brutal crackdown on Iran’s pro-democracy green movement last June.

Yet European political elites, as well as energy and engineering companies, are callously—and conveniently—ignoring divestment pleas from those Iranian democracy advocates. A growing number of key opinion-makers and activists in the green movement support biting sanctions on the Iranian energy sector. They believe sanctions would strengthen Iran’s struggling democratic movement and exert greater pressure on the Iranian regime’s unlawful nuclear-enrichment program.

While prominent green leaders like Mir Hossein Mousavi have publicly opposed sanctions for what appear to be tactical reasons—to allow them to condemn the regime for the decisions that led to sanctions—other Iranian dissidents and activists now welcome robust penalties against the energy sector.

Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a distinguished Iranian film director who serves as a sort of spokesman for the green movement, neatly captured the urgent need to increase global economic pressure on Iran. “The revolutionary guards are terrorists. They are in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon. They tortured people in Iran. They rape people in prisons. If you explain to the Iranian people that you are sanctioning their enemies, they will support you,” he told the Guardian.

Makhmalbaf is not a voice in the wilderness. Iranian experts and analysts confirm that, in private conversations, green movement activists implore the international community to take greater pains to influence the regime’s behavior. In view of the potential consequences, these activists are understandably reticent—they know the regime would blame them for any additional sanctions.

(The green movement may also have a decision-making mechanism that requires key decisions to be made unanimously, to preserve unity in the face of overwhelming pressure from the regime. Sanctions are not without controversy, so it is not surprising that there are internal disagreements on their utility.)

Yet, such a debate over the legitimacy and efficacy of sanctions is not without precedent. In the 1980s, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and other activists initially opposed sanctions against the apartheid regime for fear that they would harm black South Africans. They reversed their position when they saw that sanctions would marginalize and undermine the government that was oppressing them.

The Iranian regime is now ripe for a similar sort of campaign, having reached a point where the harder it cracks down on democratic activists, the less support it enjoys, even among conservative elites. In May, the mullahs led a wave of imprisonments and executions of labor union activists and dissidents, killing Farzad Kamangar, a 35-year-old teacher and member of the Teachers’ Trade Association of Kurdistan, for the transgression of “enmity against God.” The crackdown has increased support for the pro-democracy movement.

The clerics’ bloody suppression of widespread demonstrations in the wake of the fraudulent June 2009 presidential election has created the preconditions for a transformation of Iranian life, encouraging steely resolve among disenfranchised groups from labor unionists to Iranian women, who are increasingly rejecting the regime’s efforts to police their appearance. The Iranian regime has less political legitimacy than ever. What else can Western politicians and corporations do to advance the cause of democracy in Iran?

One answer is to deny the regime the resources it needs to run the massive energy sector that provides the regime with its lifeblood.

Iran is an energy superpower. It is the world’s fourth-largest producer of crude oil. Oil-export revenues constitute more than 24 percent of Iran’s gross domestic product, according to Government Accountability Office estimates, and provide between 50 percent and 76 percent of government revenues. Iran’s natural gas reserves, some 981 trillion cubic feet, are the world’s second-largest after Russia’s. The country already enjoys substantial international leverage thanks to oil. Once it becomes a major exporter of natural gas, it will have exponentially more wealth and power.

Yet one of Iran’s most serious vulnerabilities is its dependence on foreign energy sources. As a result of its limited refining capabilities—a consequence of U.S. sanctions—the Islamic republic must import approximately 30 percent of its annual domestic oil consumption from foreign suppliers. For the United States and its allies, this heavy dependence represents a significant opportunity to ratchet up the pressure on the regime.

U.S. efforts to ban foreign energy investment in Iran began with the passage of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act of 1996, which authorized sanctions against foreign firms that invest more than $20 million in Iran’s energy sector in any single year. To date, however, no U.S. president has sanctioned even one of the scores of companies that are in violation of the legislation for fear of provoking an anti-American backlash from countries like China, Russia, Germany, France, Austria, India, Japan, or South Korea, which are major players in the Iranian oil and gas sector.

But the legislation has still had an impact. The mere threat of sanctions has hung over the energy industry like the sword of Damocles and, as a Congressional Research Service report put it, “constrained Iran’s energy sector significantly.”

During Ahmadinejad’s first four years in office, foreign investment in the Iranian energy sector plummeted by 64 percent, from $4.2 billion to $1.5 billion. The threat of sanctions poisoned the air, and Ahmadinejad replaced a number of competent energy technocrats with regime loyalists, including Republican Guard officials who had no prior experience in the energy industry. Iranian officials now say that without an annual investment of at least $25 billion, Iran could become a net importer of oil.

More recently, Congress has set its sights on Iran’s vulnerability to interruptions in its gasoline supply. The Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, which passed the House in December 2009 and the Senate this January and is now being finalized in conference committee, is expected to pass in late June. The bill would authorize sanctions on any entity that provides, or helps Iran to obtain, refined petroleum. The conference committee may also add more teeth to the bill by establishing punitive measures against firms that provide critical technology and support for Iran’s oil and natural gas sectors and by banning Iranian involvement in foreign energy projects.

Some characterize energy sanctions as a silver bullet that would cripple Iran’s economy, driving an angry Iranian public to rally around the flag. Others call sanctions a pinprick that would do little to Iranian leaders and merely enrich Chinese and Russian energy firms at the expense of European and American ones.

Both views are wrong: Energy sanctions are an extension of a comprehensive strategy to weaken the Iranian regime and fan the flames of domestic discontent. Whether by denying the regime much-needed capital and technology or by curtailing its access to the financing it needs to develop its energy sector, the strategy has already shown some success. An increasing number of international energy and energy-related firms have left Iran or announced their intention to do so. Still, without indications of the Obama administration’s commitment to enforce sanctions, many of these companies may decide to resume their Iranian business activities.

Many Iranians despise the regime not only for its human-rights abuses but also for its incompetence in managing the national economy, where inflation and unemployment are running in the double digits. They are furious that the regime has squandered Iran’s dwindling energy wealth and allowed the Revolutionary Guards and their Chinese and Russian enablers to steal what remains.

Despite the regime’s attempts to blame these economic problems on the sanctions policies of the United States, many, if not most, Iranians blame their leaders. In November 2008, a group of 60 Iranian economists publicly criticized Ahmadinejad for his “tension-inducing” foreign policy, which had “scared off foreign investment and inflicted heavy damage on the economy.”

A recent Iranian government decision to end gasoline subsidies in order to reduce the country’s vulnerability to refined-petroleum sanctions may also drive up already high inflation rates. In late May, as Iran continued to suffer an economic crisis, Iranians disrupted a typically choreographed pro-Ahmadinejad speech with heckles of “We are unemployed!”

As Iranians take to the streets to mark the first anniversary of the June 12 democracy uprising, they will once again face off against the Revolutionary Guards and their Basij paramilitary thugs.

Iranians who yearn for democracy would be heartened if additional sanctions proved unnecessary and the country’s energy partners were more mindful of their own best interests. By conducting business with the current Iranian regime, these companies are taking considerable risks with their stockholders’ money. And, fairly or not, Iranians may come to believe that these companies are fueling the regime that represses them.

It may seem counterintuitive for citizens to support sanctions against their own country, but as Desmond Tutu and his compatriots showed, sometimes they are a people’s best hope for a more just and democratic government.

Mark Dubowitz leads the Iran Energy Project at the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Benjamin Weinthal is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a journalist based in Berlin.

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