Pursuit of happiness
Iran and the American Revolution
February 11, 2002
Now that Khomeini's theocracy seems to be agonizing, Iranians think and write
a lot about the future of their country. Some are nostalgic of the past. Others call
for something different both from the ayatollahs and the shahs. I, for one, think
that the "true" Iranian revolution did not happen in 1979. It is going
to take place sometime in the years ahead.
On the surface all revolutions present common features: demonstrations, riots, fightings,
wars, overthrow of established authorities, new governments and so forth. Actually
in our information age, these visible aspects make the news and flood television
screens. Yet there are no two identical or even parallel revolutions. Thus, in the
past twenty years Iranian Ayatollahs and Afghan Taliban seized power and established
It is true that both look backward instead of turning toward the future, but
nevertheless they profoundly differ from one another. The Taliban used their army
in order to impose their brand of Islam in Afghanistan and offer a basis to bin Laden's
al-Qaeda for a world Jihad. Yet another example: Mao's Red Army in 1949 defeated
Chiang Kai óshek and transformed China into a communist nation. Because of this resemblance
in the means of "conquest", can we compare the Chinese and the Taliban?
Reporters and commentators like to offer hasty explanations which seldom go beyond
the appearances. For instance, in the case of Iran, they insisted on the poverty
of the peasants and the cities' under-classes, when in the 1970s, for the first time
in many centuries there was no famine and the vast majority of Iranians either in
the country side or in urban surroundings, were eating to their fill and enjoyed
higher standards of living.
Many experts enumerated similarities with the French and even the Russian revolutions.
They told us revolutions "eat their own children". They discerned "Thermidorian"
and "Jacobine" periods in Khomeini's doings. It is true that the Russian
and the Iranian revolutions were both "ideological" : Marxism for the former
and Islam for the latter. Moreover, both imposed strict authoritarian rule. But if
after almost one century we know a lot about Lenin and Stalin, we remain at sea about
the Iranians' motives: they overthrew one dictatorship to bow immediately to a harsher
for one, discard comparisons between historical events. One can only compare what
The American Revolution, for instance, involved colonies of the British crown
while the French one concerned a national state. The French were fighting against
absolutism and in favor of citizen's rights. The Americans already enjoyed some of
the rights embodied in documents such as the Magna Carta ( 1215) and the English
Bill of Rights (1628). Their goal was independence from the colonial power
while the French aimed at overthrowing the absolute monarchy and demanding individuals
rights and civil liberties.
Be this as it may, I often recall what our history professors used to tell about
the last years of the French monarchy and the storming of the Bastille. The Declaration
of the Rights of Man struck me particularly. This was quite normal as my class mates
and I dreamt of the day when people of the Third World, including Iranians, would
enjoy similar rights and freedoms. (Alas this has not happened up to now). In high
school we also learned about the American revolution, but our model remained the
My early encounter with the ideas of human rights and civil liberties left a deep
imprint in my mind. It was as if a hidden voice was guiding me in that direction.
Indeed after I joined the Iranian Foreign Ministry in 1945, one of my first and most
significant jobs was my participation in the finalization of the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights in the UN in the autumn of 1948.
I was assigned as a young diplomat to the Third Committee which was in charge
of the draft declaration. Our senior delegate had to quit and for reasons which would
be too long to state here, he was not replaced. As a result I found myself in the
seat of Iran, rising all of a sudden from simple secretary to the status of plain
In that UN Committee, one of my law professors, the late René Cassin, represented
France. He enrolled me in a private group he had formed with the late Eleanor Roosevelt
in order to sort out the numerous amendments and sub-amendments. I would feel remiss
if I do not underline here that without the untiring efforts of Mrs Roosevelt and
professor Cassin the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would have never been
Since 1948, human rights, in one form or another, remained linked to my career
both as a national and international civil servant. Thus, when, in 1952, I joined
the secretariat of UNESCO, I was assigned to a division called : "Free Flow
of Information ". For more than a decade I was involved in freedom of information
programs in developing countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. I returned to
the service of Iran in 1965 and found myself almost immediately immersed in the negotiations
concerning the two covenants on human rights that were adopted by the United Nations
In 1968, I was responsible for the organization of an international conference
which was held in Tehran under the aegis of the United Nations in order to mark the
20th anniversary of the Universal Declaration. In 1993, I represented some non-governmental
organizations at the Vienna Conference on the occasion of the 45th anniversary of
I shall never forget my 1948 involvement in the adoption of the Declaration. I
signed the document on behalf of our foreign minister and I am probably the only
survivor among the signatories who all were much older than me (I was only 24 at
that time!). But more than that, what still bewilders me today is a discussion with
the head of our delegation and other senior representatives at the Third session
of the UN General Assembly in Paris. I just had obtained my doctorate in law from
the Sorbonne and studied seriously the text of the draft Declaration.
In the first staff meeting of our delegation, I stated that Iranian laws and practices
were in contradiction with each article of the Declaration. The foreign minister
shrugged his shoulders : "Never mind! The Americans want it and we need Washington's
help. So vote like Mrs Roosevelt." Then the old diplomat added: " In any
case this is a General Assembly resolution. It is not binding. It is just a piece
of paper. It won't have practical consequences. In a year or two everybody would
forget about it."
The minister died a few years later and did not see the ever expanding worldwide
influence of this "piece of paper". If he had lived long enough, he would
have seen, for example, in 1978, the Iranian intellectuals and journalists brandishing
it against a beleaguered and shaky Shah. For years the Iranian monarch had brushed
aside the protests of human rights non-governmental organizations. When he finally
woke up to the uproar, it was too late. Now, repeating the mistake of their predecessor,
Tehran's governing mollas hide under their turbans and mantles, rejecting the protests
against their gross violations of citizens' rights.
At any rate, in 1993, in the Vienna Conference marking the 45th anniversary of
the Universal Declaration, there were more than 1,000 human rights non-governmental
organizations represented. Amnesty International, since its inception, is campaigning
everywhere against abuses and has become a thorn in the flesh of all authoritarian
Over the years, since I am now living in the United States, I pondered on the
American Constitution, its Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence All these
documents bear resemblance to similar documents of other democracies. But, I found
in the preamble to the American Declaration of Independence a separate, addition
idea which attracted me. Indeed, among inalienable human rights, this Declaration
mentions the "pursuit of happiness".
The United States is far from being an ideal society.
It has many shortcomings. In some domains, Europeans seem more advanced. Nevertheless,
I submit that the original notion of "pursuit of happiness", puts the American
Revolution ahead of all other progressive revolutions. In a way, this idea encompasses
all other rights and freedoms. It tells that governments are established only to
secure the basic needs and rights of citizens, that governments derive their powers
from the people, and many other things too. It means that humans are born equal and
free. It constitutes a bulwark against tyranny and exploitation.
A decade or so back in Manhattan, I listened to a very interesting talk given
by V.S. Naipaul (this year's Nobel prize in literature) about what he dubbed the
"Universal Civilization". He concluded his remarks with an apology of the
idea of "pursuit of happiness". I wrote down some of his comments which
I offer here as a conclusion to this short paper:
This idea... fits all men. It implies a certain kind of society, a certain kind
of awakened spirit. I don't imagine my father's Hindu parents would have been able
to understand the idea. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility,
choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement.
It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate
fanaticism. But it is known to exist, and because of that, other more rigid systems
in the end will blow away.
To me, it also reflects the profound meaning of our mythical Simorgh. At
the end of their perilous trek, the thirty birds find out that they are themselves
a single Simorgh. Instead of looking for an elusive "parental "
archetype, Iranians should rather understand that they are themselves the real and
only source of authority. They do not need somebody to lead them. They should choose
their leader for a limited period of time. After that, they should engage in the
pursuit of happiness!
Fereydoun Hoveyda was Iran's ambassador to the United Nations from 1971 to
1978. To learn more about the Hoveydas, visit their web