If, at this very moment, George Washington could choose the most rightful heirs to his legacy, I like to think he would pick the people of Ukraine and Iran. As divided as Americans currently are in their great experiment with democracy, Ukrainians and Iranians are showing nothing but certainty and valor in their struggle for the very same rights that undergird the republic that Washington helped establish.
In their fight, the Ukrainians are confronting an authoritarian enemy that the United States had hoped it could contain through diplomacy. The Iranians chanting “Woman, life, liberty” are willing to die for their variation on the foundational American theme of “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Neither country’s citizens are willing to surrender, despite the assaults of missiles on Kyiv and of riot police in Tehran. “Give me liberty, or give me death” may have originated nearly 250 years ago in Virginia, but today the slogan has found a new home in distant lands, among people who are not American by birth but may feel so in spirit.
Yet that kinship between the struggles of these two nations has not yet received the urgent recognition it needs in Washington, D.C.—the center of American democracy and government. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s recent announcement of measures “to hold Iran accountable for violence against its own population, particularly against women and girls” is a welcome development—if those measures prove to be more practical than rhetorical. But as I found in a series of recent meetings with senators and senior State Department officials, the way that Ukraine’s and Iran’s destinies are now entwined—by virtue of Moscow’s alliance with Tehran, and Iran’s escalating supply of military aid to Russian forces in Ukraine—is gravely overlooked. Many of those I met seemed particularly unprepared to hear about the full measure of the Iranian people’s demands. The refrain I kept hearing was: “What’s the difference between these uprisings in Iran and the ones that came before?”
During the 2009 Green Movement, I explained, the protesters were asking, “Where’s my vote?” They were still in conversation with the regime, and believed that by holding the authorities accountable, they could undo the rigged elections. Today’s demonstrators are done with talking to the authorities. As they hurl insults at the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ruhollah Khomeini, and its present supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, they have one simple demand: Go!
A week after my exchange with Secretary Antony Blinken and other senior State officials, including Robert Malley, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, I saw this tweet from Malley: “Marchers in Washington and cities around the world are showing their support for the Iranian people, who continue to peacefully demonstrate for their government to respect their dignity and human rights.” If I had not sat across from the envoy and told him unequivocally that what Iranians want is to be rid of the regime—which was a message echoed by fellow Iranian American women who attended the meeting—I might have thought that he didn’t know the people’s real demand.
The only way I can think to account for this apparently willful misrepresentation of the new reality in Iran is that the Biden administration, which Malley serves, is more concerned with resurrecting the Obama-era nuclear agreement with the regime than acknowledging the Iranian people’s actual aspirations. This type of tone-deaf response by American policy makers toward Iran has a long history. In the 1940s and ’50s, a Cold War preoccupation with curbing communism obscured for American policy makers the political facts of Iran, created an irrational fear of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, and led to the CIA’s participation in the 1953 coup that overthrew him and his government. Today, salvaging the nuclear agreement is the distracting preoccupation for the State Department, stripping administration officials of the intellectual agility needed to grasp the situation now unfolding in Iran and adjust U.S. strategy accordingly.
I was equally perplexed after meeting with a couple of Democratic senators. When I urged them to lend all of their support to the demonstrators in Iran, I heard instead a litany of America’s policy failures in countries neighboring Iran, recited as evidence that the U.S. can never understand the region and is bound to commit another error by intervening. How the experience of past defeats under wartime conditions justifies inaction at a historic hour, I will never know, but this did not seem like the reaction of statesmen.
Unfortunately for Iranians and Ukrainians, Moscow and Tehran do not equivocate about supporting each other. This was a bond they forged in Syria. While the U.S. and Europe stood by, Iran and Russia annihilated the anti–Bashar al-Assad movement. And that alliance helped pave the way for the invasion of Ukraine. After the U.S.’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, Vladimir Putin was emboldened to attack Russia’s neighbor. And he knew that he could count on the Iranian regime to back his action as resolutely as it had in the past. This week, John Kirby, the communications coordinator at the National Security Council, confirmed that Iranian military personnel were on the ground in Crimea to assist Russian military personnel in “piloting Iranian UAVs [drones], using them to conduct strikes across Ukraine.” According to CNN, Ukrainian intelligence officers also claim that the Russian army is expecting to receive shipments of far more advanced drones, which can carry 200 kilograms of explosives.
If the connection between the struggles of Ukrainians and Iranians is not obvious to American officials, it is to others—such as the historian Timothy Snyder, who commented in a recent tweet: “The Iranian regime that kills women for their manner of wearing head scarves supplies weapons so that Russia can kill people for being Ukrainians.” And this connection preceded the current wave of protests in Iran: Days after Russia invaded Ukraine, a crowd holding blue-and-yellow flags gathered in front of the Ukrainian embassy in Tehran for a candlelight vigil, chanting “Death to Putin!” A barricade quickly went up in front of Russia’s embassy in the city to keep protesters away. Iranian digital activists declared their solidarity by adding the Ukrainian flag to their social-media profiles and avidly posting news of the war. Last month, members of the Ukrainian and Iranian diaspora held a joint demonstration in London, making it clear that their cause is the same.
Underlying that common cause is Ukrainians’ commitment to independent nationhood, with free and fair elections. They are fighting for the right to determine their own future, not have it determined for them by the autocrat next door. Iranians, too, have similar aspirations, which, in only the past six weeks, have cost them nearly 250 lives and led to the imprisonment of 12,500.
To reach this point, when a protest of the regime’s rule about the mandatory dress code for women has galvanized a national call for an end to the regime altogether, Iranians have traveled far. Back in 1979, Iran’s revolutionary leaders—both Communist and Islamist—who deposed the shah were each intent on building their own ideological utopia. It was utopianism that kept so many Iranians from joining a previous generation of women who had taken to the streets on March 8, 1979, to protest the ayatollah’s decree on the religious dress code. Some notable secular intellectuals and Marxist figures, caught up in their own illusions, called the protesting women “vain” and “out of touch with the needs of the anti-imperialist revolution,” which meant that the women should abide by the Islamic dress code in the interest of national solidarity.
Now, finally, after this decades-long delay, everyone has joined the women on the streets—and for the very demand of freedom that some had the courage to make so long ago. This time, no grandiose ideological delusion leads the protesters, only a desire for what they call “a normal life.” Last month, an Iranian singer named Shervin Hajipour created a song from a compilation of tweets people had posted, explaining why they were rising up—“for clean air … to walk a pet dog, to kiss on the street without fear, for the hope of a future.” These basic longings are the clearest signs of how far Iran has traveled from its past ideological zealotry to wanting the individual freedoms that made up the vision of American democracy that George Washington championed when, in 1790, he sent a letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island: “Every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid,” he wrote. These are the same simple joys that Ukrainians are fighting for and that Iranians are marching for.
I have come away from my meetings with U.S. officials with an overwhelming sense that official Washington simply does not know what to do with good news. For the past 20 years, Americans have feared an imminent war with Iran. That war never came. Instead, that formidable enemy regime now faces an existential threat from its own people, as the other formidable enemy, Russia, is being battered by our Ukrainian allies. These historic events ought to be hailed by America’s leaders as triumphs. They have come not on the heels of any American military intervention, but through the two nations’ own resolve and initiative.
In 1979, the Iranian people were chanting in the streets “Death to America.” Today, they’re chanting “Death to the dictator” and demanding American-style liberty. With authoritarianism on the rise in the world, the success of these two nations could be a boon for the cause of democracy—if only Washington would see that and act upon it.