07/19/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

I Never Thought I'd Be Rooting for Iran

I never thought I'd be rooting for Iran .

I am in awe of the courage of the people of Iran.

They are giving the world hope. They are teaching a shocking lesson about truth. They embody freedom. And, perhaps hardest to grasp, for those of us who live in the Middle East, they are putting their very lives on the line not for the sake of some ferociously sectarian End of Days, but for the most profoundly radical notion of all -- a better life.

Every person who has taken to the streets to demand what their government promised them, free and fair elections, did so knowing that police or secret police could arrest them, act to cripple their careers, or outright gun them down.

When the national soccer team, the sporting love of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's life, took the field in Seoul, and when Iranian state television showed the team captain and most of the squad wearing wrist and arm bands in the green of the reformists, the players knew that there was much more at stake -- at risk -- for them personally, than whether they would defeat South Korea and advance to a place in the World Cup. The game ended in a 1-1 tie. Iran's fervent hopes of appearing in the quadrennial tournament were all but dashed. But the team had already clinched a victory of momentous proportion. They are quiet lions. They are, in every sense of the word, champions.

I never thought I'd be rooting for Iran. But I'm pulling for them now, hard as I can.

Don't get me wrong. I never swallowed the neo-con view of Tehran as the Great Satan. I didn't take Ahmadinejad's cataclysm threats at face value. I never even quite trusted the sincerity of his anti-Semitism. It seemed, in his hands, like just one more rabble-pandering tool in the kit.

This is, after all, the Middle East, where straight truth is routinely bent around corners to fit, mask, or skirt inconvenient realities.

Still, I have to get used to this. For years I watched the Islamic Republic in the stern public face that the ayatollahs themselves carefully nurtured. It was said that the founding Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni, never allowed himself to be photographed while smiling. More recently, vexed by the ease and the smugness of Ahmadinejad's Jew-hate, I came to view them as a brilliantly well-adapted enemy. While it seemed to me that the odds were against a down spiral and an Israeli-Iranian exchange of ballistic missiles, the word "erase," when used publicly against another country, becomes hard for the mind located in that country to, well, erase.

In trying to view the Israel-Iran stand-off with equanimity, an official policy of Holocaust denial was little help. Every time I opened the door of the bomb shelter in our basement, I could see Ahmadinejad's grin in the darkness.

Now, though, the people in Tehran's streets have made it possible to begin to see past Ahmadinejad. I have to get used to Iran not as a cartoon bully, but as my neighbor. Not because they will go nuclear -- though nuclear they may well go. But because it is a nation of people, as we are, not pawns in an increasingly obsolete revolution.

It often seems that fundamentalism is the curse of the Middle East. In Israel, in Palestine, in Lebanon, in Iraq and Iran -- it appears at first glance that it is fundamentalism that keeps peace at bay; that it has cursed Israel with settlements and faith-based racism; that it has cursed the Palestinians with anti-Jewish incitement and dated ideology which has kept statehood a practical impossibility; that it makes Hezbollah worship weaponry over all else; and has spurred brother Muslims, Shi'ites and Sunnis in Iraq, to suicide bomb each other's mosques, and each other.

But this view is too simple. It fails to take into account the fact that it is not religion per se, but its unholy marriage with politics, that yields the excesses that rob people of their freedom, dignity, and a future of peace. When fundamentalism becomes revolution, the truth that is in religion, becomes the first casualty.

And make no mistake. We are all revolutionaries here. And when everyone is a member of one revolution or another, the struggles are bound to collide. In Israel alone, the founding rival revolutions (socialist Zionism versus right-wing Revisionism) which have succumbed to age and irrelevance, have been replaced by the deadlock between the settler/no compromise revolution on the one hand, and the software/global-outlook two-state revolutionaries of the new center. The Palestinians have a similar dichotomy, with the aging onetime-Marxists of Fatah battling the middle-aging Armani Islamists of Hamas.

In the wider Middle Eastern theater, the fundamentalist revolution of neo-conservatism clashed with -- and thus fueled -- the various rival revolutions of Islamism.

The saving grace, for this reason, may be the circumstance that for all their talk of permanency and messianic solutions, revolutions, like the people who run them, age. At some point, when they no longer serve their stated goals, or their people, they begin to die.

Enter, at this point, the world revolutionary named Barack Obama. The revolution he has declared is one that has resonated here with telling effect. Perhaps because it explicitly values quality of life over confrontation; peoplehood over dogma.

When Obama ran a campaign on a platform of change, few expected that, after carrying 28 states and the District of Columbia, he would carry Lebanon as well. Iran may be next. Where do we fit in? Israel and Palestine may take time. They are tough territory for moderates. And revolutionaries do not relinquish their struggles easily. But if recent events are any measure, Obama is not just any moderate.

In the meanwhile, let us return the favor of the people of Iran, and offer our hopes.

It is time for us to wear the green.

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