Every day, more articles indicate that war with Iran is not far off. The thought that this might be true makes me feel physically sick.

Here is the rough draft of an editorial I wrote for Washington Square News. It’s a piece I should have written a long time ago.

An Attack On Iran Would Be A Tragedy For Its Democrats
by Una Hardester

An attack on Iran, by the United States or Israel, would be a disaster for the entire Middle East, but most of all for Iran’s pro-democracy forces. If Iran was attacked, all hope of peaceful democratic change would be destroyed for the foreseeable future, and the tremendous risks and sacrifices of thousands of students, human rights activists, journalists, lawyers, academics, and other members of Iran’s besieged but courageous civil society would be rendered worthless. This can’t be allowed to happen.

More than seventy percent of Iranians are under age thirty. These young Iranians desire greater freedom, and a society free of the kind of violence the ruling hard-line theocrats inflict on them, but they do not, in any way at all, want regime change to come through outside military action. This is not to say they themselves are not willing to take action.

University students have stood up to riot police and heavily-armed militia to protest the closure of newspapers, and the arrests of student leaders for political activities. Hundreds of students have gone to jail in recent years. No one knows exactly how many have been executed. Most have been tortured, some to death. Tehran’s Evin Prison is infamous for its cruel treatment of political prisoners. This past summer, a young man by the name of Akbar Mohammadi, a former student pro-democracy activist, died in his cell, gagged and chained to a bed in his final hours. Mohammadi never advocated military regime-change. He believed peaceful change would bring about a better Iran.

This belief is shared by Iran’s surviving pro-democracy activists, including Akbar Ganji, a journalist who has become, along with Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, one of the most internationally recognizable faces of Iran’s pro-democracy movement. Ganji spent six years in Evin prison for writing articles that linked senior regime members to the murders of prominent dissidents. After he was released in 2006, Ganji went abroad to speak about human rights and the pro-democracy movement in Iran. When he visited the United States, he was invited to the White House. Ganji declined the invitation. Worried by the United States’ increasingly hawkish rhetoric against Iran, Ganji said, “You cannot bring democracy to a country by attacking it.” President Bush should ponder those words carefully. Though great personal suffering was inflicted on him by the Iranian regime, Ganji still believes that change must come from within the Iranian population, even if that means more slowly than Israel and the West desire. We may curse its incrementalism, but this is how organic democracy emerges.
But what about the bomb? If Iran’s current government develops nuclear weapons, it will kick off an arms race in the region, and threaten the security —even existence—of Israel, the worried pro-attack voices say.

To them, I say; things are not as dire as they seem; you must keep a cool head. The apocalyptic threats from Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, are just the blathering of a crude populist who, contrary to portrayal in American media, is a figure-head, not an autocrat. Even if the Iranian regime creates a handful of crude nuclear weapons in the next few years, it is unlikely in the extreme that it will use them against Israel. It is equally unlikely to hand them off to terrorists (another doomsday scenario bandied about lately), knowing that this would result in retaliation as surely as a direct attack would. More probably, Iran would use its nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip in the cynical game of international politics. This is the purpose of nuclear weapons today.

Unfortunately, this means Israel would have to live with a nuclear Iran, something its leaders have said they will never allow. But Israel would not have to live with this threat forever. The Iranian regime consists of individuals who have been in power since the revolution of 1979. They are aging and paranoid, and, above all else, concerned with staying in power as long as they possibly can. They understand that they are surrounded by a vast sea of youth that is idealistic, reformist, and pro-democracy, and sheer demographics ensure that their days are numbered.

The bulk of today’s young Iranians were born shortly after the revolution their parents took part in, and they have grown up with its consequences; the Iran-Iraq War, international isolation, and intense repression, but, despite efforts to the contrary by those in power, they have not grown up with an abiding hatred for the United States or the West. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not their president because they voted for him. He is their president because they did not vote at all. After turning out in massive numbers to elect a reformist in 1997, Iran’s young people then spent eight years being bitterly disappointed, and many boycotted the latest, highly unfair presidential election.

The United States and Israel must recognize this, and not buy into Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric. He does not speak for Iran. Iran’s young people lack access to international forums, to mass media, and to sympathetic ears in the West, and their voices are not heard. This is not just a shame, it’s dangerous. It allows elites who would like to see Iran’s nuclear sites destroyed, and its government deposed by military means, to paint the entire Iranian population as genocidal, anti-Semitic, fundamentalists bent on ushering in a new age of nuclear war —in other word’s, a people deserving of whatever they get. We must reject this notion.

Iran is a country of contradictions and appalling injustices. The gap between the policies and opinions of its rulers and the beliefs of its people is yawning. If the West wants a democratic and non-nuclear Iran, it will have to wait, and not intervene to stop Iran’s nuclear production process. Even Western governments funding opposition groups won’t help; it will simply give credence to the regime’s claim that dissidents are tools of the United States. The best thing for Iran’s people is for Western governments —in fact, all governments— to stay out the regime-change process altogether.
The Iranian regime will fall, but it will fall at the hands of the Iranian people, who genuinely desire solidarity and moral support from the outside. They do not hate us, but they are terrified that, in our state of frenzied fear, we may ruin all they have fought so hard for. For Akbar Ganji and Shirin Ebadi, for the countless students who have spoken out and been killed for doing so, and for all those who continue the fight for freedom, democracy, and human rights under one of the world’s most repressive regimes, Americans and Israelis must raise their voices in loud opposition to an attack against Iran.