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Q&A with Mariam Memarsadeghi About The Protests In Iran
Mariam Memarsadeghi, a Presidential Leadership Scholar alumna, has been working to provide civic education to individuals living in Iran and other parts of the Middle East through live e-learning and open access educational resources delivered through social media, satellite TV, and a mobile application. Below are her thoughts on the recent protests in Iran.
Why are Iranians being more outspoken and protesting for their freedoms now? What changed?
The Iranian regime is totalitarian and has some of the world’s worst forms of repression on its record. The biggest protests were in 1999 (by students) and 2009 (by the urban middle class), but smaller protests are regularly led throughout the country by dissidents, student activists, feminists, labor organizers, ethnic minorities, and others.
The recent protests, which are not related to an election or led by a “reformist” leader, have erupted in every city and countless towns throughout the country, the most widespread since the revolution. The protestors are demanding a complete end to rule by mullahs and they are opposed to the so called “moderates” as much as they are the more hardline elements in the regime. Their slogans are unmistakably secular and liberal.
What is different this time?
Following the signing of the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made promises of an improved economy. While the Iranian regime was provided with billions of dollars in new wealth, the economy did not improve and people became poorer. Workers have not been paid their wages, corrupt credit institutions have robbed people of their savings, and the currency has lost its value. The dire straits of the Iranian people, combined with awareness of lies and deep corruption by the regime, as well as its sponsorship of terror and wars, and the decades long repression of basic liberties, became too much. People's access to smart phones -- up from about one million during the 2009 protests to over 40 million today -- also played a pivotal role in galvanizing and sustaining the protests.
Why should the United States pay attention to these protests? What can the United States do?
It is in America's self-interest to want a peaceful, democratic government in Iran. Our moral values and our national security interests are in perfect alignment: Iranians are all too aware of the illiberal dangers of Islamist government and politics.
There is much the U.S. government can and should do. The U.S. government can help most by sanctioning the regime for its human rights abuses. The US government can work with principled voices in the European Parliament such as Marietje Schaake to pressure the European Union to abandon its policy of appeasement and place human rights and security above particular national interests in trade with Iran.
Our elected officials should continue to give rhetorical support to those fighting for their most basic human rights. It has been wonderful to see expressions of solidarity not only from U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and others in the executive branch, but also from a spectrum of members of Congress from Senator Bernie Sanders of Virginia to Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. Speaking out for those who are risking their lives for a brighter day will protect them, not endanger them.
This should continue and be strengthened by calls from a bipartisan group of women in Congress for an end to gender apartheid in Iran, solidarity from U.S. officials and labor organizations focused on worker rights for the working class revolting throughout Iran, and more.
One consensus among Iranian civil society leaders is the symbolic and practical import of a ban on the Iranian regime's state media. The #banIRIB hashtag has become a rallying point for attention to Iran's use of TV, radio and U.S.-based social media companies as sharp tools for its repression.
American social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram are manipulated to silence civic activists and human rights initiatives, while giving the Iranian government heightened reach and influence. The US government should work closely with these American companies to protect the work and voices of the good guys from nefarious techniques by state media outlets, regime troll farms and algorithms.
For example, Tavaana, the civic education and civil society support initiative Akbar Atri and I founded, was shut down on Instagram for over ten hours at the height of the Iran protests while official state media outlets continued to freely use social media platforms.
What inspired you to co-found Tavaana? Tell us about your program and the impact it has made.
The proliferation of the Internet in Iran made us realize that it can be used to impart to Iranians all that they cannot freely and safely access in the real world. We build the capacity of Iranian civil society and provide civic education to many millions of Iranians each day using our organically robust social media networks, live e-classes and events, mobile app, satellite TV broadcasting and more. The project is a household brand in even rural and remote parts of the country. Countless grassroots and national level civic initiatives have been aided by our open-access educational resources and mass information dissemination.
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