H.A. Hellyer is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington and the Royal United Services Institute in London.
When it comes to the Iranian protests, few are able to parse with much authority what they mean. The space to report openly in Iran is restricted – and precious few outside Iran know its language or have spent much time there. But the discourse spun in many Western capitals over the last few days has lessons within it. So many outside Iran seem to make what happens inside it all so disconnected to what is happening. Instead, they make it all about themselves.
It's difficult to be certain about what these protests represent. Humility in that regard is necessary. Yet an absolute moral imperative exists in insisting that non-violent protests should be permitted without threat of violent retribution. That isn't controversial. But the support of different right-wing Western figures must be contextualized.
Over the last few days, we've seen some claim the protesters should be "supported" because most Iranians are "pro-America". Others insist Iranians were "empowered" to revolt because U.S. President Donald Trump "inspired" them.
The implication of this telling discourse is that Iranian protesters should be sympathized with because they uphold the concerns of the Trump administration within the broader region. It's a rather selective – and hypocritical – assessment.
Consider that during the Iranian protests, activists in Egypt – the government of which is a key U.S. ally – were given jail sentences for protesting the transfer of two islands to Saudi Arabia. Were these same figures on the American-right concerned about their right to protest?
Consider that all Iranian citizens have been subject to a ban on entering the United States. Far too many on the American right advocating for that ban have also been promoting severe economic sanctions that will target average Iranian citizens.
Can such right-wing protestations in support of Iranian protesters be taken as signs they support Iranians? Or is their support conditional on whether such Iranians are aligned with a narrowly interpreted notion of American interests in the region? Are they not reducing Iranians to being chess pieces in a larger geopolitical game – a game that is neither about Iranians, nor the other citizens of this region?
Surely we can – and should – evaluate the events on the ground in Iran without projecting our own politics. The native agency of Iranians themselves is the point here. But alas, there are many examples of us in the West ignoring such agency when it comes to past struggles.
As an example: in 2011, I was in Cairo when protests were raging – and I hasten to add that Egypt and Iran are wholly dissimilar in their challenges and struggles. But there was a common theme in how those protests became the subject of many conversations in the West.
Were the protesters "pro-West?" Would they be "pro-Israel?" Those were some of the veritably irrelevant questions asked. The protests in 2011 were about the agency of Egyptians – an assertion of citizenship. That should have been enough, but many on the Western right called for the backing of then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak as a source of stability, failing to recognize that his rule was a source of instability.
While in Tahrir Square, I remember then-U.S. president Barack Obama expressing support for the protesters. The crowd, watching his speech on one of the screens in Tahrir Square, didn't seem interested. The sentiments I heard were along the lines of "if he supports us, then good for him – we are fighting for a just cause. If he doesn't, then good for him too. We don't need him anyway, and we're not fighting for U.S. interests. We're fighting for our own."
As a rule, the right of citizens to peacefully protest without threat of violent retribution should always be recognized, and Iranians who protest should thus see international signs of solidarity. But when we support that right selectively, we hold no moral high ground; we merely open ourselves to the accusation that we're hypocritical.
Furthermore, Iranians may one day succeed in changing the system in Iran. We should all hope such a day comes sooner rather than later, but that hope shouldn't be conditional on whether Iranians are in support of our narrow geopolitics. It should be conditional on whether it is more respectful of fundamental rights. Our moral integrity depends on that consistency, and is obliterated otherwise.