WASHINGTON, Sept. 7, 2011 — The chain of popular uprisings across the Arab world known as the “Arab Spring” is a monumental moment in the politics and future of the Middle East, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said yesterday.
“The changes that are taking place, people coming together to … seek the same kind of rights and opportunities and freedoms that others enjoy in this world … is a good sign for the future,” Panetta said during a televised interview with PBS’ Charlie Rose.
While many governments are in upheaval and risks remain, events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria send a clear signal to Iran that it is not winning in the region, and to al-Qaida that “the jihadist ideology is not winning in that part of the world,” he said.
The current uprisings in Syria are “very much a people movement,” the secretary added. He noted that the international community is imposing pressure and sanctions on Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to try to force him to step down.
“When you start shooting your own people in the streets, you lose any legitimacy to power,” the secretary said. “You cannot do that and expect to be legitimate in the eyes of the people of that country. And I think Assad’s days, just like [Libyan leader Moammar] Gadhafi’s, are numbered.”
When the uprisings began early this year, U.S. military and intelligence communities worked to identify the common factors linking the chain of popular revolts, the secretary said. Those factors included poor economic conditions, a youthful population that didn’t see much hope, and a thriving social media network.
“Part of it was just the fact that they had had enough that they knew their lives could be better and that they didn’t have to tolerate the kind of lives that they were leading,” he said. “All of those factors came together to produce the changes that we’ve seen.”
When people decide “the moment has come,” and they band together to take on the military or a tyrannical leader, “that’s a moment when tremendous change is about to happen. And I think it’s true not only in the Middle East, it’s going to be true in Iran as well,” Panetta said.
“I think the reform movement in Iran is learning one hell of a lot from what’s happened in Tunisia and Egypt and Libya and Syria,” he added.
The 2009 presidential election in Iran demonstrated “a movement within Iran that raised those very same concerns that we’re seeing elsewhere,” the secretary said.
“I think in many ways it’s a matter of time before that kind of change and reform and revolution occurs in Iran as well,” he added.
The United States and other nations must allow the people of the Middle East to take the lead in their own nations, but must also provide support as changes take place, Panetta said.
“I think that sense that there’s someone standing beside you who shares the same concerns, the same feelings, and is prepared to make that kind of sacrifice if necessary — it’s when those ingredients come together that these changes occur,” he said.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)