In protesters' fight for justice in Iran, U.S. stands on the sidelines

By William Kristol
Friday, January 1, 2010; A17

"Along with all free nations, the United States stands with those who seek their universal rights."

That was President Obama on Monday, expressing solidarity with the people of Iran -- and also acknowledging that the world is crucially divided into free nations and unfree ones.

The free nations tend to acknowledge the existence of universal rights. Those rights include the right of the governed to consent to their government. And from this it follows "that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness."

As Obama said Monday, the Iranian regime is engaged in "the violent and unjust suppression of innocent Iranian citizens," using the "iron fist of brutality, even on solemn occasions and holy days" when "the Iranian people have sought nothing more than to exercise their universal rights." It governs "through fear and tyranny." It follows, then, that the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has become destructive of the just ends of government.

Now, one could respond that the Islamic Republic doesn't acknowledge the claim of the Declaration of Independence -- that it doesn't accept the proposition that "governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." Rather, it embraces the doctrine of velayat-e faqih: the rule of the supreme religious leader.

But the Islamic Republic also claims to be, well, a republic. It has elections (most recently on June 12, 2009, and most memorably because of the regime's fraud followed by the use of force). The regime claims to rule in accord with both the principle of democratic legitimacy and a certain interpretation of Islam.

Given the latter, it's fitting that it was the recent death of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri -- who broke with his teacher, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and challenged the doctrine of velayat-e faqih on Islamic grounds -- that triggered this latest and perhaps the decisive crisis of the regime. As Montazeri's argument has gained ground among clerics, the regime seems to have lost the legitimacy of divine as well as popular sanction.

Still, the mullahs and the Republican Guards aren't giving up easily. The people of Iran need help.

After his expression of solidarity with Iranians, Obama closed his remarks Monday by saying, "We will continue to bear witness to the extraordinary events that are taking place there. And I'm confident that history will be on the side of those who seek justice."

Confidence in the course of history -- sometimes too much confidence in the course of history -- is in the American tradition.

Just before his death, Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration, wrote: "May it be to the world what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government." After all, Jefferson claimed, "All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view, the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god. These are grounds of hope for others."

So in 1826, Jefferson claimed to have great confidence in the future. Yet, at that time, slavery was becoming ever more entrenched in this nation. The institution was soon to be ever more strongly defended by his political heirs -- partly because Jefferson had, in his day, used hope for progress and confidence in the future as an excuse to avoid confronting this challenge.

And the last century, which certainly featured the further spread of the light of science, also featured great revolutions in 1917, 1933, 1949 and, yes, in 1979, which did not advance the cause of the rights of man.

Doesn't the history of the 20th century, with its wars and genocides and terrorism, teach that "the side of those who seek justice" doesn't easily prevail? That justice needs all the energetic support it can get? That the help of the United States is crucial?

The United States has not even begun to do what it could -- rhetorically and concretely, diplomatically and economically, publicly and covertly, multilaterally and unilaterally -- to try to help the Iranian people change the regime of fear and tyranny that denies them justice.

Regime change in Iran in 2010 -- now that would be change to believe in.

William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, writes a monthly column for The Post.

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