The world has been mesmerized over the last several months by images of heroic Iranian women refusing the mandatory hijab and, along with their brothers and friends, taking to the streets to denounce an authoritarian system that denies free elections, free speech, and other basic rights to all of its citizens. The resulting crackdown by the regime has been intense, including public beatings, rapes, and executions by hanging, but the protesters are undaunted.
It is not just the people of Iran who stand to benefit from the success of this grassroots prodemocracy campaign, known as the Azadi (Freedom) movement. Freedom in Iran would make the country less threatening to its neighbors and the rest of the world, mark a huge victory for the cause of women’s rights globally, and represent a decisive break from the pattern of authoritarian expansion that Freedom House has documented for the last 16 years.
Recognizing the importance of the opportunity that the people of Iran have created, a diverse cross-section of international civic and political leaders has come together to co-sign the Call for Solidarity, an open letter urging governments—particularly democracies—to pledge their support for the protesters’ campaign. Other world leaders would do well to heed the call.
“The Azadi movement addresses no demands to the regime, which it regards as fundamentally illegitimate and beyond reform,” the letter states. “The protestors chant ‘down with’ it.” They want theocracy and dictatorship replaced by freedom and democracy. They proclaim a ‘revolution.’ They deserve unstinting support from freedom-loving people around the world.”
In a short time, the Call for Solidarity has attracted a remarkable group of signatories, including former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of South Korea, journalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa of the Philippines, U.S. actor Richard Gere, Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood, Russian political prisoner Vladimir Kara-Murza, and Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López. Former heads of state and government officials from across the political spectrum, including Hillary Clinton and Michael Chertoff, have also attached their names to the letter, alongside hundreds of scholars and human rights activists.
These endorsements are an important reminder to current elected officials that the cause of Iranian freedom has powerful allies, and that the Iranian people are not alone in their struggle. The statement also points to the many different ways in which freedom-loving governments can support the Azadi movement, including through unabashed public declarations of solidarity with the demonstrators and condemnations of the regime’s increasing repression.
European governments should follow the advice of members of the European Parliament by adding the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to their lists of terrorist organizations and freezing the overseas assets of its leaders and companies. The international community should also take practical steps to ensure that Iranian protesters are able to share information with one another and with the outside world, for example by supporting Iranian broadcasters in exile and promoting access to virtual private networks that can be used to circumvent the regime’s online censorship and service disruptions.
What the movement needs most, however, is for international observers to shed the pessimistic belief that nothing good can come from this wave of protests. The Iranian regime seems to be trying to kill its way out of a crisis that began with a senseless death, but this will only create greater public frustration with a rotten and brutal system. While change in Iran may take time, demand for freedom is on the rise.
Dictators everywhere are revealing their deep vulnerabilities, and they are unable to deliver what their people crave most: the freedom to pursue their lives as they see fit. Ukrainians are proving that victory over tyranny is possible with sufficient support from the democratic world, and that autocratic regimes, despite their claims of strength and infallibility, are actually riddled with corruption and mismanagement. Even the Chinese regime has been forced to abandon its failed “zero COVID” policies in the face of undeniable discontent from its people.
Iranians will never relent in their struggle for democracy and human rights, but they need and deserve the solidarity of democratic countries and organizations around the globe, now and for however long it takes to prevail.
Michael J. Abramowitz is the president of Freedom House. Goli Ameri, the Vice Chair of Freedom House, came to the US from Iran in 1974 to attend college and is the former US Assistant Secretary of State. The views expressed are the authors' own.