American freedom riders; Iranian hunger strikers

"A revolution is coming—a revolution which will be peaceful if we are wise enough; compassionate if we care enough; successful if we are fortunate enough—but a revolution which is coming whether we will it or not." ― John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage

With the commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of JFK’s assassination on November 22, words from Profiles in Courage cross paths with past, current, and future upheavals. They include a soft revolution in America, Arab revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, and prospective revolution in Iran. Will Barack Obama show courage and back Iranians who seek a soft revolt in Iran?

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Iranian dissidents held in prison-like conditions in Iraq are the true profiles in courage. Just like few dreamed freedom riders and sit-in demonstrators would ignite the civil rights movement, it seems inconceivable that the suffering of a few might ignite a chain of events that brings down leaders of the Iranian regime—Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his satrap in Iraq—Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.

Despite strong reservations of Dr. Martin Luther King, freedom riders and sit-in demonstrators risked their lives and created a soft revolution first in the deep south and then throughout America. Those jeopardizing their lives in Camp Liberty, Iraq, do so despite advice of the leadership of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) and former American military advisers who now stand on the side of Iranian dissenters in Camp Liberty. While few take notice, hunger strikers are laying down a moral marker for the rest of us.

While it may appear as if the leadership of the National Council of Resistance of Iran uses hunger strikers as a strategic tool to wrest concessions from the United States, my interviews with hunger strikers in Geneva outside the UN venue for the major power talks with Iran indicate that they are on their own and have been strongly discouraged by the NCRI.

On the date commemorating the JFK assassination, November 22, hunger strikers will enter their eightieth day going without food so their brothers and sisters can be resettled outside of Iraq. Although most of the strikers are dying in silence, one poet sings a song that reminds me of another of JFK’s remarks from Profiles, “The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”

That one man is Mohammad, a popular singer of the Iranian resistance, who sings his way to an honorable death: He endangers his own life to call on President Obama to break his silence and act to save the lives of 3,000 other Iranian dissidents in Camp Liberty. As the hunger strikes enter their twelfth week, there is an extraordinary rise in fear of the other residents, surviving families, and the Iranian community.

Besides Obama, another target of Mohammad is the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It has the power to deny the sale of American-built Apache helicopters for Iraq to use in counterterrorist operations against al Qaeda that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki so dearly desires. But Nouri did not count on the moral power of Mohammad, the hunger striker.

Regarding the civil rights movement, consider that during the same week of the 50th year of JFK’s death comes the 150th year to commemorate the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address of November 19,1863, and his earlier Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, which freed the slaves. Lincoln planned simply to mark a burial site of those who gave their lives in the Battle of Gettysburg of July, 1863. He then saw the dedication of the Battlefield as an occasion to persuade the Northern public why the war was one on behalf of freedom and not simply for saving the Union. And the South did not count on the moral power Lincoln showed combining freedom for the slaves with preservation of the Union.

So the revolution anticipated by JFK in Profiles of Courage presaged the soft revolution began by black and white freedom riders and sit-in demonstrators. Both stood on the shoulders of Abe Lincoln of Illinois. Will Barack Obama of Illinois stand by Honest Abe, without whom Barack would not be in the White House? If not Obama, who? Just as Lincoln backed freedom for the slaves, so Obama can back liberty for the Iranian dissidents. Now is the time for Obama to be courageous and back Iranians trapped in Iraq.

Tanter served on the National Security Council staff in the Reagan-Bush administration and is Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan. His latest book is "Arab Rebels and Iranian Dissidents."