OPINION Two of us, Penn and Erlich, traveled to Iran in 2005 and interviewed numerous ordinary Iranians. People were very friendly toward us as Americans but very hostile to U.S. policy against their country. We visited Friday prayers where 10,000 people chanted, "Death to America." Afterward those same people invited us home for lunch.
That contradiction continues today as Iran goes through its most significant upheaval since the 1979 revolution. Iranians are rising up against an authoritarian system, but they don't want U.S. intervention.
Many Iranians believe that they have experienced a coup d'état, in which the military and intelligence services have hijacked the presidential election. Through vote-buying and manipulation of the count, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad guaranteed himself another four years in office.
In June more than a million Iranians marched in the streets of major cities across the country. The spontaneous demonstrations included well-to-do supporters of opposition candidates, but also large numbers of workers, farmers, small-business people, and the devoutly religious. They were fed up with 30 years of a system that used Islam as an excuse for breaking union labor strikes, stripping women of their rights, and repressing a nation.
The Iranian government responded to these peaceful protests with savagery, killing dozens of people. Some human rights groups put the number at more than 100. The government admits arresting 2,500 people nationwide and continues to hold at least 500. Most are being held without charges or have simply disappeared.
The repression hasn't killed the movement. On July 17, more than 10,000 people came to Friday prayers in support of the opposition. Instead of chanting "Death to America," they chanted "Death to the Dictator," a reference to supreme leader Ali Khamenei. Police attacked them with clubs and tear gas.
Meanwhile in Washington, some politicians tried to use the crisis for their own ends. Sen. John McCain criticized President Obama for not taking a stronger position against the Iranian government. It's ironic to hear McCain and other conservatives proclaim their support for the people of Iran when a few months ago they wanted to bomb them.
That doesn't exactly build credibility among Iranians.
President Obama faces tough choices on Iran. If he speaks out loudly against Ahmadinejad, he is accused of meddling in Iran's internal affairs. If he says too little, then right-wingers in the U.S. accuse him of being soft on Ahmadinejad.
In reality, the U.S. has very little ability to impact what has become a massive, spontaneous movement for change. And it shouldn't. The CIA overthrew the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, bringing the dictatorial shah back to power. George W. Bush's administration attempted to overthrow the Iranian government by funding and arming ethnic minority groups opposed to Tehran.
The U.S. government has no moral or political authority to tell Iranians what they should do. Iranians are perfectly capable of deciding for themselves.
That's why citizen diplomacy is so important. Iranian demonstrators welcome the support of ordinary Americans. Joan Baez recorded a Farsi-language version of "We Shall Overcome" that has shot around the world on YouTube. She sang it July 12 at San Francisco's Stern Grove.
Iranian activists are holding a hunger strike in front of the United Nations in New York from July 22 to 24, demanding that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon send a special commission to Iran.
With hundreds of thousands of Iranian-Americans in California, it would be unconscionable to ignore the nonnegotiable right of peaceful dissent by millions of people in Iran. Join us in the San Francisco Civic Center plaza on July 25, from noon to 4 p.m. Stand in solidarity with Iranians and against U.S.