The Washington Post Column

Solidarity, Iranian Style

A couple of days ago, a politician of my acquaintance received an e-mail from a student in a foreign country. Politely, the student asked if he could conduct an electronic “interview” with the politician. The politician agreed. The questions duly appeared in his in-box. Here’s a sample:

“What do you think about the Eastern Europe status in global interactions? According to the US insistence on NATO expansion, how do you see this trend and what is its effect on Eastern Europe? Considering globalization, how do you assess the US role in Eastern Europe especially in economic and cultural fields?”

Nothing extraordinary, in other words — except that the questioner was an Iranian student and the politician was Polish. On the face of it, Poland and Iran would seem to be two countries with remarkably little in common, separated as they are by geography, history, religion and aesthetics. At this particular moment, however, strikes and protests continue to roll across the major cities, universities, even oil fields of Iran. Secret policemen arrest, isolate and interrogate pro-reform student activists. All of this is described by a plethora of opposition newspapers and Web sites produced inside and outside the country. Iran, in other words, is beginning to look a lot like Poland in the 1980s, when student protests, worker strikes and underground media helped create the conditions that led to the collapse of communism — and some Iranians know it. Iranian questions about Eastern Europe are not, in other words, purely theoretical.

More to the point, Iranian questions about American influence in post-communist Poland cannot be purely theoretical either, given the extraordinary role that the United States played in communist Poland. Many millions of U.S. dollars — channeled by the CIA — bought printing presses, paper and ink. Voice of America and Radio Free Europe not only broadcast pro-Western programs into Poland but also established direct links with and among dissidents, helping opposition leaders keep in touch with one another, even providing the signals to begin demonstrations. As an internal VOA memo stated in 1981, U.S. broadcasters were openly striving to “destabilize the Soviet Union and its satellites by promoting disaffection between peoples and rulers.” Nor was all of the support financial: After the crackdown on the Polish Solidarity movement in December 1981, Ronald Reagan lit candles in the windows of the White House, asked other Americans to do so too, and spoke frequently and emphatically of nurturing freedom “where it does not exist.”

And here is where the comparison ends, for by contrast, American support for the Iranian student revolution has been remarkably tepid, despite students’ quiet efforts to get help. True, President Bush did make a statement back in July specifically praising the Iranian student activists and calling for an Iran that is “at once Muslim, prosperous and free.” But no candles are being lit in the White House for imprisoned students, nor are millions of dollars in aid publicly flowing into the underground presses of Tehran, nor has the president said anything particularly notable since student demonstrations picked up last month. As Jackson Diehl wrote on this page Monday, some U.S. public affairs broadcasting is even being replaced by pop music.

Caution, distance and the inability of anyone in Washington to focus on more than one Middle Eastern dictatorship at a time provide most of the explanation. When asked, officials also talk about the history of perceived American meddling in Iran: It seems they don’t want to contaminate the genuine democratic revolution by tarring it with the imprimatur of the Great Satan. Yet not all help need be overt. CIA money for Poland flowed through church, ethnic and labor organizations, mingling with private contributions. Businessmen, tourists and emigres carried the dollars into the country.

Nor is it clear that the Iranians really do object to U.S. support for democracy. An opinion poll published a few months ago in the official Iranian media showed that more than 70 percent of the population supports increased dialogue with the United States and more than 50 percent broadly supports U.S. policy toward Iran. (The pollsters were arrested.) Given that the poll came long after the “axis of evil” speech, it’s hard to see any reason why those numbers would decrease in the wake of a louder, more visible U.S. pro-democracy campaign.

It’s also hard to see why we should wait. There is no love lost between the United States and the Iranian clerics. The “reformers” within the regime have failed, just as the advocates of “communism with a human face” failed in the past. Iran, according to the administration’s own statements, supports terrorism and is on course to produce nuclear weapons. If Iranian students are beginning to seek Polish advice, what have we got to lose?