Iran Middle East Politics & Diplomacy


June 17, 2020

A tale of two Americas, a tale of two Irans

By Maryam Nayeb Yazdi

As an activist of Iranian heritage living in Washington DC, it has been interesting to observe the wave of protests across the United States through the lens of someone who has documented mass protests in Iran and campaigned for Iranian human rights for over a decade.

Through my work, I have called out the hypocrisy of Iranian officials, who have long branded themselves as champions for human rights abroad. They have used the Black Lives Matter protests to call out the United States’ human rights record while having an abysmal record at home. In November 2019 alone, between three hundred to 1,500 protesters were killed and thousands were arrested in Iran during nationwide protests.

The murder of Neda Agha-Soltan in 2009 continues to be a rallying cry among protesters in Iran, much like the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis has become for protesters in the United States today.

Just as there are two Irans, there are also two Americas. There is the America projected abroad—what President Ronald Reagan described as “the shining city upon a hill” in his 1989 farewell address—and there is the America whose history is rooted in slavery and mass atrocities against indigenous peoples. America’s dark origin story plays out today, with the killings of George Floyd and many other black people being blatant examples of how structural racism is embedded in the very fabric of American society.   

The protesters calling for justice and criticizing the US government’s repressive response illustrate these two Americas trying to reconcile themselves. Unlike Iranians, who live in a country where reform simply isn’t possible because it’s run by an authoritarian regime, Americans have the capacity to create change through free and fair elections—not just through a high stakes presidential election in November, but at the state and local levels. America’s greatest strength is its ability to promote justice and accountability through free speech and a decentralized democracy. It is now being threatened with crackdowns on peaceful protesters in numerous American cities.

The United States, of course, does not have the authoritarian political system that Iran does, but Americans are seeing authoritarian dynamics play out within its democratic system. I have been proud to bear witness to the bravery of Americans speaking truth to power amidst a pandemic. A lesson from Iran is that it’s one thing to call for change and another to turn collective outrage into tangible reforms. There needs to be a set of actionable demands to hold the government accountable. It is easy to unite temporarily, but it’s hard for that unity to be sustained. 

For there to be a real reckoning on racial justice in the United States, there needs to be an understanding of root causes; America was built on slavery and a sustained dehumanization of black and indigenous peoples. I’ve similarly encouraged my Iranian brothers and sisters to think deeply about root causes and our own complicity in upholding an elaborate system designed to dehumanize and abuse the entire Iranian population.

But perhaps most importantly, the US needs to practice what it preaches. For the US to have the moral authority to hold the Iranian regime accountable for its human rights atrocities, it first needs to deal with its domestic human rights record. When the US cracks down on nonviolent demonstrations demanding racial justice at home, it places itself on weaker footing when lecturing the Iranian regime—or any other country for that matter—and calling out repression and human rights abuses.

Whether in Iran or the United States, it is not enough to create spaces for public dissent.  Protesters in both countries need to turn the momentum of public outrage into tangible action with concrete demands. When individuals recognize their own power, this can lead to the kind of collective action and empathy needed to sustainably upend structures of oppression.

Only then will there be justice for the Neda Agha-Soltans and George Floyds of the world.

Maryam Nayeb Yazdi is a global human rights campaigner, founder of Seed Operations, and co-founder of the Oslo Women’s Rights Initiative. Follow her on Twitter: @maryamnayebyazd.

Image: Pictures of the Iranian woman Neda Agha-Soltan, who was killed during a post election anti-government protest, are placed on Albertina Square during a demonstration in Vienna January 23, 2010. Iranians living in Vienna gathered at Albertina square in solidarity with opposition demonstrations in Iran and to commemorate Agha-Soltan's 27th birthday. Agha-Soltan became a symbol for protests against Tehran's hardline leaders after graphic footage of her death was seen around the world on the Internet. REUTERS/Murad Sezer