Sharansky: Vocal Western support critical to Iranian protesters

Natan Sharansky, who spent nine years in the Soviet gulag in the 1970s and ’80s, knows a thing or two about how authoritarian regimes are brought down.

Natan Sharansky  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Natan Sharansky
On December 30, two days after Iranians took to the streets for the first wave of massive protests since 2009, and soon after US President Donald Trump – in marked contrast to his predecessor – first tweeted support for the protesters, The New York Times ran a piece in its op-ed section calling on Trump to sit still.
Under the headline “How can Trump help Iran’s protests? Be Quiet,” Philip Gordon, who served as assistant secretary of state and White House coordinator for the Middle East during president Barack Obama’s administration, wrote that “high-profile public support from the United States government will do more harm than good.”
Gordon defended his former boss’s failure in 2009 to support the Green Revolution, writing that “it was never clear what difference American rhetorical support would have made then, other than allowing the Iranian government to depict the protesters as American lackeys, giving the security services more of a pretext to crack down violently.”
Natan Sharansky, the head of the Jewish Agency and former Prisoner of Zion and human rights activist, who spent nine years in the Soviet gulag in the 1970s and ’80s and knows a thing or two about how authoritarian regimes are brought down, thinks Gordon is dead wrong.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Sharansky said that security and foreign policy experts like Gordon around the world, including in Israel, were working overtime this week trying to convince their leaders to keep quiet, arguing that anything they would say in support of the Iranian protesters would be used against the demonstrators.
Trump – who has posted eight tweets since Saturday in support of the protests – did not listen, nor did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu wishes "the Iranian people success in their noble quest for freedom" (YouTube/IsraelPM)
Netanyahu bucked the recommendations of Israel’s security and foreign policy elites and posted a video on Monday supporting the protesters and slamming European leaders for their silence. The European leaders, for the most part, listened to their experts, and only belatedly and halfheartedly gave any rhetorical support this week to the Iranian demonstrators.
The experts’ problem, Sharansky said in his Jewish Agency office, which is graced with a large portrait of Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, is that they are thinking in terms of “realpolitik diplomacy that is happening in an abstract world, without really taking into consideration what is happening in the minds of the people” who are deciding whether to take to the streets.
In authoritarian regimes, like the one in Iran, there are three classes of people, Sharansky explained.
There are the “true believers” – those who buy into the ideology of the regime.
There are those whom Sharansky dubbed “double-thinkers” – those who don’t believe in the regime’s ideology, or are skeptical about it, but who are afraid to speak out.
And then there is a very small group of dissidents who speak up publicly.
“The stronger and more frightening the regime, the longer the regime lasts, the number of the double-thinkers grows,” Sharansky said. But being a double-thinker is an uncomfortable duality in which to live, he said. “People are skeptical of the regime but afraid to speak, and they live an uncomfortable double life.”
Revolutions take place, he said, when masses cross the line from double-thinkers to dissidents, when somehow they think that it is less risky to take to the streets, or because they feel comfortable enough to do so because they are part of a huge crowd and a larger movement.
This, he said, is the revolutionary moment currently taking place in Iran: People are making the decision whether it is time to jump off the fence from double-thinkers to dissidents. And it is exactly at this junction, when that decision is being made, that support from the free world is so critical.
For people on the cusp of that decision, Sharansky said, it is easier to cross the threshold of fear with a crowd, and if you feel the world is with you. He said that people decide whether to step across that line depending on whether they feel the regime they are opposing is weak or strong, and hearing support from the international community reinforces the feeling that the regime is weak.
THEN PRIME MINISTER Shimon Peres greets newly released Prisoner of Zion Natan Sharansky at Ben-Gurion Airport where he was flown from Germany after being freed from a Soviet prison, February 11, 1986. (GPO)
THEN PRIME MINISTER Shimon Peres greets newly released Prisoner of Zion Natan Sharansky at Ben-Gurion Airport where he was flown from Germany after being freed from a Soviet prison, February 11, 1986. (GPO)
“When there is a critical mass of people who say they don’t accept the regime, it falls, but for this, millions have to be ready to say that,” Sharansky said. “If the impression is that the government has a free hand to do what it wants, that the world will allow it to do what it wants, then it will keep people from crossing the line.”
Sharansky likened this process to boiling a liquid. First there are a few bubbles, then hundreds, and then millions of them. But if you pour cold water on it, the bubbles decrease and eventually disappear. That cold water is a lack of support from the free world.
Sharansky said that an example of this was Obama signaling in 2009 – just at that moment when the Iranians were deciding whether to man the barricades – that “we prefer engagement with the regime, rather than changing the regime.”
To try to keep people from crossing the line, Sharansky’s said, authoritarian regimes always raise the specter of external enemies and outside provocateurs.
Advising leaders not to vocalize support because those comments will be manipulated by the regime misses the point that the government will say that the protests are all a Zionist, Western provocation regardless of whether Netanyahu, Trump or anyone else utters a word, Sharansky said.
“At the moment that people are thinking about whether or not to cross the line, what the government – which they hate – says is a provocation does not matter to them,” he said. “Even if they hate America or Israel, it is not important. At this moment they hate the regime, so what the regime says about America or Israel does not matter.”
Furthermore, he said, those people on the verge of deciding whether to go into the streets already do not believe the government propaganda; otherwise, they would not be double-thinkers.
“These people don’t want the regime; they suffer from it, they want it to be changed,” he said. “The question is whether they will be willing to say it publicly, and whether we encourage the process – whether we put more fire under the flames – or pour cold water on it.”
Sharansky praised Trump for not listening to his “experts” and coming out in support of the protesters, though he said more is needed than merely the posting of tweets. He welcomed the US move to initiate a debate in the UN Security Council, saying that could influence how other countries relate to the developments inside Iran.
Regarding Netanyahu’s public support, Sharansky said that while the impact of these comments on Iranians should not be overstated, they were important “because this creates moral pressure on the European countries” to say something.
“It is true that Netanyahu’s position will not have the type of importance on whether people go into the streets as would statements by [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel or [British Prime Minister Theresa] May, but I hope it does influence and create some pressure on other world leaders.”
“I am very glad he did it,” Sharansky said of Netanyahu’s statement, adding that he would advise him now to talk to various world leaders and encourage them to take a stand.
“There are limits to what we can and cannot do,” Sharansky said. “As a part of the free world in the Middle East, I think our leaders have a moral obligation. I am glad it seems that this time the American administration is behaving differently than in 2009, and I’m sorry that it is not something that all the free world is doing.”