They’re risking their lives. We’re debating utes. You’d think that, in local discussions of Iran, a certain humility would prevail.

But not so for Janet Albrechtsen. She sees the Iranian uprising as the latest battleground of the Clash of Civilisations, with the West, naturally, emerging victorious.

“Could it be,” she muses, “That history will now record George W. Bush more kindly than his critics would prefer? What is happening in Iran cannot be separated from what has happened in Iraq. [ … ]

“Lambasted for speaking about exporting ‘Western values’ to the Muslim world, it turns out the former US president was right to remind us that people, whatever their religion, class or creed, will ultimately seek out and embrace democracy. That yearning, now unfolding in Iran, will one day be written up as one of the finer lessons of history.

Since 2003, hundreds of thousands — perhaps even a million — people have died violently in Iraq. Thousands more have been driven from their homes. On Tuesday, 30 people — including a group of high-school students — were killed by bombs and shooting. Two days before that, a truck bombing killed 75 in northern Iraq.

Gosh, what do you reckon? Did Iranians really look across the border and say, right, we’ll have some of the democratic goodness that George Bush brought to Iraq?

Albrechtsen’s column represents a more distilled version of the theme percolating through the conservative response to Iran and the general region. In essence, it holds that, since foreigners have no history of their own, we can provide one for them, free of charge. Thus Mir Hossein Mousavi gets tricked out as a blend of Gandhi and Aung San Suu Kyi, despite having presided over Iran during its most repressive years and signing the death warrants for perhaps five thousand political prisoners.

Rather than discussing Iran’s recent past, Albrechtsen wants to frame the current uprising as a vindication of Winston Churchill, of all people. For the neo-cons, Churchill has become the great bulldog of democracy, the best President that America never had. It doesn’t occur to them that, in other parts of the world, his reputation might be somewhat different. Churchill himself famously regarded what’s today Iran more or less exclusively in terms of plunder. The Persian oil fields, he said, represented “a prize from fairyland beyond our wildest dreams” — and for Churchill the “our” in that sentence did not refer to Iranians.

For Iranians, the main referent for the today’s demonstrations comes from the uprising against the Shah, the tyrant propped up as king of fairyland by Churchill’s successors in Britain and their allies in the USA. That’s what makes framing the protests in terms of Western experiences so grotesque.

Yes, the 1979 revolution might ultimately have been hijacked by theocrats, but the experience of toppling the dictator gives ordinary Iranians a collective memory of resistance far more potent than any speech by a US President. The “death to the dictator” chant resounding in the current street battles comes from those days, not from Winston Churchill, George W Bush or Barack Obama.

After all, there’s millions of living Iranians who already have experience of putting their lives on the line against a dictator. How many of those offering advice from the West can make the same boast? (And, no, painting your Twitter icon green doesn’t count.)

No-one knows how this will play out. But the protests are so inspiring precisely because ordinary Iranians are now pushing far beyond Mousavi, Ahmadinejad and the other local demagogues. They’re posing their own demands and making their own history, rather than following a script from Washington or anywhere else. And that’s entirely a good thing.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey