In the days leading up to the recent elections in Iran, I was glued to the television and the Internet as tens of thousands of Iranians took to the streets calling for change and reform. These youthful Iranians had nothing but their bodies and spirits to offer, yet they were willing to put both in harm's way to ignite a movement. And, as I write this, their work has just begun.
It was a powerful display of what appeared to be ordinary citizens calling on their government to listen to them and not just dictate how they should live their lives and what they should believe. The cries of the street demonstrators caught the attention of us here in America. More important, they caught the attention of those back in their nation.
A few days before the actual voting took place, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a statement saying that he feared a "soft" or "velvet revolution" such as the one that occurred in Czechoslovakia, where the existing communist regime was overthrown by a nonviolent revolution.
Khamenei's announcement was followed by a statement from the Revolutionary Guard, commonly referred to as "thugs" in the world press, that the color green henceforth constituted signs of a velvet revolution.
Green was the chosen campaign color of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi, the former leader of Iran during the Iraq-Iran war. The bright color quickly became a symbol and appeared seemingly everywhere — on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and other social-networking sites, as well as in the windows of Iranian homes and at campaign rallies in some of Iran's largest urban cities. Overnight, a campaign that once offered the Iranian people little, if any, choices became a rallying call for change.
Election day arrived. Iranian citizens flocked to more than 45,000 polling sites, some of which were so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of eager voters that they ran out of ballots, and the voting hours had to be extended to handle the hordes of people.
Before the first vote counts were released, Mousavi declared himself "definitely the winner." Before the first vote counts were released, Khamenei declared Ahmadinejad the winner.
"There were 40 million votes cast, and just two hours after the polls had closed, they announced Ahmadinejad's victory — and these votes are hand-counted in Iran," noted Karim Sadjadpour of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on CNN.
With so many allegations of fraud and voting irregularities, Iran's supreme leader, who had earlier proclaimed Ahmadinejad the winner, ordered the Guardian Council, Iran's highest legislative body, to look into allegations of fraud.
What happens next depends largely on how Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and Mousavi handle the crisis. The media is reporting, as I write this, that at least eight people have already died, and many more were wounded in the post-election demonstrations. If the current leaders come down hard, they will no doubt stir more resistance and public outcry.
In the meantime, the Obama administration cannot meddle. "It's not productive," President Barack Obama correctly noted, "given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling."
The United States can and must wait until Iran's Guardian Council and others determine if the election was free of glaring errors that could have impacted the outcome. If the United States took sides now, it could have the affect of uniting Iran's two factions, instantly. We still have some work to do in rebuilding ties and strengthening relations with our allies and even more with our adversaries.
In the wake of this new movement for change and reform in Iran, the last thing we need to do right now is to embrace any faction. As one former high-ranking U.S. diplomat told me recently, "Those ordinary citizens marching in the streets of Tehran need to know that the United States is not going to legitimize a fraudulent election. Reformers have long memories. If the United States abandons them now, we will eventually pay."
Ahmadinejad predicted that the demonstrators "would disappear after a while, just like those angry fans following a defeated football match." In no way do I believe that the forces stirred by this election will go dormant. When repressed freedoms are released, as has now occurred in Iran, there is no way to get them back into the bottle, even if they clamp down on journalists covering the protest or close down Internet sites.
This is just the beginning.
Thousands upon thousands of Iranians have now taken to the streets demanding a new election. No matter the color of the fabric, this appears to be a velvet revolution that will not simply fade away.
Donna Brazile is a political commentator on CNN, ABC and NPR; contributing columnist to Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill; and former campaign manager for Al Gore.
Copyright 2009, Donna Brazile.
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