In 1980, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a joke circulated in Warsaw: "What's the difference between Afghanistan and Poland? Answer: Afghanistan begins with an "A" and Poland with a "P". In other words, Poland might be Western and more prosperous but, in the end, it was just as vulnerable as Afghanistan to Soviet coercion.
That joke, however, has resonance today. The summer of 1980 saw the birth of Solidarity, a unique worker's movement within and against the "worker's paradise" of the People's Republic of Poland. The philosophical and psychological impact of a working class rebellion was tremendous; it was in fact fundamental to the subsequent demise of the Soviet Union.
Now, in Tehran, protesters are shouting "God is Great!" instead of "Death to America!" The latter slogan has been for over a generation the standard response of crowds. As Amir Taheri points out in The Persian Night, the Islamic Republic of Iran is not Islamic. Islamic clerics, on a per capita basis, have suffered more repression than any other segment of society for their opposition to the Khomeini revolution. No new mosques have been built for decades and existing ones have been used for all kinds of secular purposes.
Protestors' use of a traditional Islamic formulation is a bit like Polish workers' appropriation of the word "solidarity" that previously had belonged to the communist regime. In essence, they are delegitimizing the regime.
While it is true that all the presidential candidates were part of what Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei , in his June 19 speech, referred to repeatedly as the "establishment", that doesn't mean that the protests do not have the capacity to change Iranian policy.
I was a young U.S. diplomat in Poland in 1980, and what I learned is that people's entire frame of reference is transformed if they can say something in public that previously could only be said in private. Among other things, freedom of speech is liberating. In Warsaw, strangers came up to me on the street to tell me all kinds of things - because they could. I imagine that many Iranians also have pent-up feelings and that they experience the same relief and intoxication in speaking out publicly, even at a high personal cost.
The early Solidarity period was the time when Polish filmmaker Andrej Wajda made a movie in which interviewees stated with calm conviction that the communist regime was doomed, even if it took time to collapse. At the time I thought they were wildly optimistic, but it turns out they were right. We shouldn't rule out a similar result in Iran. After all, the Supreme Leader said the people are the ones who choose.
Alas, there is yet one more parallel between Poland and Afghanistan. The U.S. government went out of its way, in the summer of 1980 and beyond, to avoid any contact with Solidarity. Partly, this was wise; no one wanted to give the Polish regime an excuse to say that Americans were fomenting trouble. But it also reflected institutional reluctance to contemplate any changes in the existing government and our relationship with it. It certainly looks as if the Obama administration is succumbing to this well-traveled if disgraceful approach.
In both cases, there was no need for the United States to take sides on a clearly internal matter. The Poles were so sure of our friendship that the relationship did not suffer. But using euphemisms to dodge the unpleasant truths that Iranian protesters are voicing, at considerable danger to themselves, is a betrayal of American traditions and values.
Nor did Obama's euphemisms and dodges spare him the disapprobation of Khamenei. The United Kingdom, rather than the United States, took the brunt of Khamenei's wrath, but he nevertheless chided Obama for reportedly siding with the protesters.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is held together by anti-Americanism, not Islamic fervor. Statements by Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, as well as the street chants, reflect that basic truth. Mollifying and disingenuous speeches by Obama will not change it.
Leslie S. Lebl, Fellow of the American Center for Democracy, was a Foreign Service Officer in Warsaw, Poland, from 1979 to 1981.