Iranian Protesters Finally Look to America

President Obama reacted standoffishly to this summer's contested election in Iran, implying that he didn't want to poison the cause of protesters by associating them too closely with the United States. As a result, he was flayed by democracy advocates who said his support was too tepid to inspire the Iranian protesters. Today, we learned that they may have a point.

This afternoon Iran celebrated the 30-year anniversary of the American embassy takeover in Tehran. The custom is for annual official demonstrations to denounce the Great Satan, but this year was different. Although the government had warned reform-minded protesters (who still come out on major occasions since the election unrest subsided) to stay home, tens of thousands of them hit the streets again today—to protest against their own government. They chanted, "Death to dictator," as usual, to protest President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's contested election in June. But, for the first time anyone can remember, they also yelled, "Obama, Obama! Either with them or with us!" The "them" in the chant means Ahmadinejad and the regime writ large.

Riot police, plainclothes security officials, and members of the Basij militia attacked the protesters with batons and tear gas, injuring several of them, according to pro-reform Web sites. (The demonstrations today, which had been publicized on various Farsi Web sites for weeks, were the second time in a month that opposition activists have attempted to derail official government rallies, which they dwarfed.) In the meantime, smaller pro-government crowds gathered around the former American embassy in central Tehran, chanting "Death to America." (Pro-government crowds are often bused in.)

This is a major change inside Iran. There have been few, if any, chants about America—for or against—in any of the protests since the June 12 presidential elections. (In fact, since the revolution in 1979, there have been no pro-America chants at all.) It's not hard to see why: the government's first reaction to the protests was to arrest hundreds of people and blame the United States, Britain, and France for the unrest. Subsequent show trials and coerced confessions about a "velvet revolution" quickly followed. Neither the dissidents nor those foreign governments wanted to give any credence to the regime's aspersions.

So why would the opposition chant the slogan "Either with them or with us!" now? Because they are exasperated by months of opacity by the Obama administration, and with a nuclear deal on the table, they're frightened. As the sticky negotiations with Western powers over Iran's nuclear program stumble forward, these protesters fear that human-rights issues within Iran may become a bargaining chip. In other words, they're worried they'll be sold out as part of a deal to contain the regime's nuclear aspirations. If the West—particularly the United States—stops bringing up human-rights abuses in exchange for concessions on the nuclear program, they will give Tehran a free hand to deal with dissenters and effectively close the book on the protests. (The U.S. wasn't the only foreign country targeted in today's slogans. Antigovernment protesters also chanted, "The Russian embassy is the den of spies," a jab at Russia's close ties with the regime.)

For its part, the White House issued a carefully worded statement about the negotiations, insisting that "Iran must choose. We have heard for 30 years what the Iranian government is against; the question, now, is what kind of future it is for." The protesters today turned that question back toward the White House and asked Obama to choose as well.