Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Can We Americans Learn Something From the Crisis in Iran?

I've been a typical American dolt when it comes to the post-election unrest in Iran.

I didn't really get upset about anything until I read an early story about the shooting death of 26-year-old protester Neda Agha-Soltan. The article included a photo of Neda, and my first reaction was, "God, she was cute. What a shame." (As if it would have been less tragic if she hadn't been a babe.)

Thankfully, two prominent American journalists recently wrote articles that educated me about what is going on in Iran--and helped me understand that the crisis hits much closer to home than I realized.

For as long as most Americans can remember, Iran has been a mess. When I was a student at the University of Missouri in the 1970s, I often saw Iranian students protesting and shouting, "Down with the Shah!" I couldn't understand what they were saying at the time, so I figured they must be Sonny Bono fans, shouting, "Down with Cher!"

I was clueless then, and I'm only marginally better now about issues in Iran.

I suspect I'm not alone in my cluelessness. Many of my fellow Americans probably have caught a glimpse of protest footage in recent weeks and said something like, "That place is always screwed up--and it's so far away. What time does Dancing With the Stars come on?"

Thomas Friedman, of The New York Times, and Leonard Pitts, of the Miami Herald, helped bring me out of my American-made stupor about Iran recently.

Friedman pulls no punches when he says that Americans hold significant responsibility for the dysfunction that besets Iran. Our thirst for oil has helped unsettle Iran and its neighboring countries:

Oil is the magic potion that enables Iran’s turbaned shahs — “Shah Khamenei” and “Shah Ahmadinejad” — to snub their noses at the world and at many of their own people as well. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad behaves like someone who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple. By coincidence, he’s been president of Iran during a period of record high oil prices. So, although he presides over an economy that makes nothing the world wants, he can lecture us about how the West is in decline and the Holocaust was a “myth.” Trust me, at $25 a barrel, he won’t be declaring that the Holocaust was a myth anymore.

The price of oil and the pace of freedom, Friedman writes, are inextricably bound. That's why he advocates an immediate $1-per-gallon "Freedom Tax" on gasoline:

I believe in “The First Law of Petro-Politics,” which stipulates that the price of oil and the pace of freedom in petrolist states — states totally dependent on oil exports to run their economies — operate in an inverse correlation. As the price of oil goes down, the pace of freedom goes up because leaders have to educate and unleash their people to innovate and trade. As the price of oil goes up, the pace of freedom goes down because leaders just have to stick a pipe in the ground to stay in power.

Iran, Friedman points out, has hardly been the only country to build a dysfunctional society upon the whims of the oil market:

Exhibit A: the Soviet Union. High oil prices in the 1970s suckered the Kremlin into propping up inefficient industries, overextending subsidies, postponing real economic reforms and invading Afghanistan. When oil prices collapsed to $15 a barrel in the late 1980s, the overextended, petrified Soviet Empire went bust.

The next time a conservative tries to tell you that Ronald Reagan brought down the Soviet Union, you might want to hand them this Friedman column.

As for Pitts, he focuses on the role technology has played in bringing the Iranian crisis to the world at large. Pitts particularly notes the disturbing video, captured on a cell phone, of Neda Agha-Soltan's death.

Writes Pitts:

There is something ... electrifying in watching Neda Agha-Soltan, blood-streaked and prostrate on the sidewalk, dying on camera and knowing this moment has not been framed and contextualized by a blow-dried network news reporter but is, rather, the grief cry of some unknown person with a cellphone camera who is desperate for you to see what is happening, desperate for you to "know." It is a raw, person-to-person connection, and one is hard-pressed to imagine its equal in any other medium.

Pitts follows with words that should resonate in Iran, Alabama, Mississippi, or any other place where corruption reigns:

Were I at the head of some repressive regime, I would watch with trepidation. Once upon a time, it was easy to impose the darkness necessary for evil deeds. But in a world where people now have means of linking to one another beyond government strictures and structures, darkness is much harder to come by.

As you doubtless know if you were there when Neda died.

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