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Originally published June 26, 2009 at 2:48 PM | Page modified June 26, 2009 at 3:46 PM

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Guest columnist

Iranians are agitating for change on their own without American intervention

Iranians are freedom-loving people making do under a repressive regime, writes Rick Steves, who recently produced a PBS documentary about Iran. "I believe Iranians want to protect their culture even more than they want to gain their freedom. Today we are witnessing a country evolving on its terms without Western influence as it strives to have both."

Special to The Times

LAST year, while in Iran producing a documentary for public television, I observed freedom-loving people patiently making do under a repressive regime.

I was troubled by the notion that the United States could radicalize the Iranian people in a moment if we tried, and hoped that we wouldn't attempt to "shock and awe" Iran to bring about regime change. It was clear to me the people of Iran could ultimately win their freedom, but only if it was organic and on their own terms.

Today, the relatively peaceful Iran I experienced is in turmoil. And it's not America that's radicalizing its population, but its own government. While it's far too early to speculate about the causes and effects of the current unrest, my recent travel to Iran has inspired a few hunches.

Asking permission to film in a great mosque, I dealt with interchangeable clerks in Ahmadinejad-style jackets, wearing Ahmadinejad-style beards, who reminded me of Soviet apparatchiks back in the Cold War days. Nondemocratic governments keep their populace in line by exploiting that element of society that will sell its soul and snitch on its neighbor just to be cozy with power. But as the Soviets learned, those flimsy measures of control only succeed for so long.

However, the Islamic Revolution's hold on Iran goes beyond simple intimidation; it appeals to deeply held values and a mistrust of the West. Walking the streets of Tehran, I saw a pride and dignity in the people. Iranians are smart and know what they want.

One middle-aged woman — who clearly believed Western ways have turned America's youth into sex toys, drug addicts and crass materialists — walked across the street specifically to tell me, "We just don't want our children raised to be Britney Spears."

While this sentiment is shared by many Iranians, the younger generation seemed more open to the outside world. Well over half of Iran's 70 million people are under 30. Iranian twentysomethings walk daily under political murals painted before they were born, which loudly trumpet messages about the 1979-1981 hostage crisis, about perceived US/Israeli aggression, and about the "threat" the West poses to their values.

While this propaganda has become white noise, international pop culture and the Internet give young people a far more balanced and Western-friendly view of the world. Based on the young Iranians I met, I imagine that today's demonstrators seek not to replace their government, but to let it evolve; they aspire to Western freedoms, but still within the framework of the Islamic Revolution.

Last week on the news, we once again saw masses of fist-pumping Iranians chanting "Death to America," as clerics tried to refocus the anger of the masses on a more convenient exterior threat. At other rallies, we heard dueling chants of "Death to Ahmadinejad" and "Death to Mousavi."

When I was in Tehran, stuck in miserable traffic, my driver muttered, "Death to traffic." He explained, "Anytime something is out of our control and frustrates us, we say death to that." I have to imagine that today, many Iranian voters are thinking, "Death to election fraud."

A year ago, while the U.S. was in the throes of a dramatic presidential election, Iran's campaign was just heating up. Being in Iran then, I thought that if McCain won in the U.S., Ahmadinejad would win in Iran. Ahmadinejad's political base is made up of less-educated, small-town, fundamentalist-Muslim, concerned parents, motivated by the same things that motivate many American voters: fear of foreign influence and love of their family. If these people are your political base, you shore up their support with fear. Our politicians do, and so do Iran's.

President Obama's policy toward Iran has not been much different from Bush's or McCain's. But his philosophy of respecting and listening to the Muslim world makes America tougher to demonize. When I ask friends overseas what they like about Obama, they say it's not what he says — it's that he's actually listening. The Iranian government desperately wants to blame the current unrest on the U.S., but Obama commands an international respect that makes those accusations ring hollow.

Iranian society is frustrated by things outside of its control. As the Obama administration gives those people less to fear, they will be less victimized by leaders who use fear against them for their own anti-democratic agenda.

Some critics are condemning Obama for "not doing enough" to help in Iran. Ironically, Obama's measured response — which makes it clear that this is a homegrown uprising — might be contributing to the boldness of the protesters on the streets. It's thought-provoking to imagine that if this election turmoil leads to regime change in Iran, a postmortem might conclude that more empathy, respect and understanding from America was the straw that broke Ahmadinejad's political back.

I'll never forget the feeling I had at Tehran's Khomeini Airport as my trip to Iran came to an end. Boarding my Air France plane, I walked with a planeload of Iranians down the jetway. At the end of the passage, standing at the door to the plane, was a smiling French flight attendant, her long hair flowing freely. (In this land of legally mandated modesty, it was the first time I'd seen a woman's free-flowing hair in 12 days.) It was as if she was manning a cultural lifeboat, helping people out of Iran and into freedom. Once on the plane, women pulled off their headscarves, wine was poured, those on board breathed a collective sigh, and we flew from the Islamic Republic of Iran into free airspace.

Iranians want to be free without leaving home. But I believe Iranians want to protect their culture even more than they want to gain their freedom. Today we are witnessing a country evolving on its terms without Western influence as it strives to have both. For Iranian democracy to grow and be viable, it needs to be organic ... and without American fertilizer.

Rick Steves writes European guidebooks and hosts shows on public television and radio. He produced and hosted the television special "Rick Steves' Iran." His newest book, "Travel as a Political Act," includes more on his experiences in Iran.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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