The United States Congress is considering legislation (H.Res. 505) which expresses support for the Iranian people's quest for freedom, human rights, and democracy. If passed, America will communicate its support for freedom, reform, and self determination for the Iranian people. Furthermore, as the people of Iran move towards a future defined by greater freedom and tolerance, they will have no better friend than the United States. Finally, the resolution states that the policy of the United States will be to support Iran's domestic movement for democracy, reform, and freedom.
The key point to pay attention to is in the last section of the resolution which states America's support for Iran's domestic movement for democracy, reform, and freedom. The language specifies that the United States supports the Iranian people as they, themselves, move toward the creation of a free, democratic state. Young Iranian-Americans, the newest generation of Iranian political thinkers educated in this country, are working hard to provide guidance captured in such resolutions to policy-makers in Washington, D.C.
Critics of this policy, namely pro-Israel and pro-monarchist groups, have interpreted the language of this resolution as de facto support for a particular faction or leader in the Iranian government, which they view as a threat or obstacle to their interests. They have thrown their support behind a competing resolution, (S.R. 306 and H.Res. 504) couched in the language of human rights, calling on the U.S. government to turn its back on the reform movement altogether. Their argument is that reform is dead, that Iranians have given up on reform, and that they are now looking for a different solution.
The resolution states that legitimizing the regime in Iran will stifle real reform toward democracy, that the United States should direct all positive gestures toward the people of Iran and not toward political figures, and most importantly, that the United States seek a genuine democracy in Iran, one that restores freedom, abandons terrorism, and guarantees peace and security. The aim of this resolution is to break all efforts of dialogue with Iran and rather to seek an external reshaping of the political system.
It is important to note that both resolutions are non-binding, which means that no specific action will be required by the U.S. government as a result of either resolution passing Congress. However, they remain important in setting the tone of U.S. policy toward Iran. The two resolutions are strikingly similar in that both sides claim they have the interests of the Iranian people at heart. Both sides believe that theirs is the surest way of restoring freedom, achieving democracy, and human rights for the Iranian people.
But to really understand these resolutions, it is important to judge the methods, and not the stated goals, proposed by each for they will have significantly different effects on the political development of the country. For example, while one resolution advocates internal reform and dialogue, emphasizes process and domestic political development, the other advocates polarization and confrontation between the U.S. and Iran, removal or destruction of one government and construction of a new one with external support and influence. Again, one is inspired by long-term domestic trends, the other is inspired by short-term foreign interests. Iranians and Americans must judge which methods serve their interests more and they must be ready to accept the fact that these interests do diverge.
In the past five years, the United States has expressed its desire to engage in increased “people to people” contacts with Iranians in the hope of rebuilding trust and confidence between the two nations. The United States government has taken a “wait and see” approach to political developments inside Iran, taking its cue from the Iranian people. In two consecutive national elections, the Iranian people voted for Mohammad Khatami as their president in what was considered free and fair elections within the current ruling system of government. Iranians expressed their desire for reform through a historic vote, considered a sweeping referendum against the clerical establishment. Many of the same Iranians who voted for Khatami in 1997 voted for him again in 2001, judging him as their best chance still for peaceful reform.
But today, Iranians are angry and frustrated at Khatami's failure to deliver on his promises of reform. Many have turned against him and have become skeptical of his sincerity toward the Iranian people. Some have come to view him as a puppet of the conservative establishment, joining the chorus of rejectionists outside the country who saw him that way from the beginning. Others simply see him as an ineffective and powerless leader. Americans sympathize with the sentiments of the Iranian nation. They continue to take a “wait and see” approach with regard to developments inside Iran. America is one of the only countries in the world which has not yet established relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. But it is increasingly impatient to do so. It understands the strategic and economic importance of the country. But it also understands that the regime remains in crisis and deeply unpopular among Iranians. It understands that things might change anyday.
There is no question in America about what the Iranian people want. American scholars, journalists, and policy-makers agree that the Iranian people want freedom, democracy, rule of law, and respect for human rights. They watched with hope as Iranians voted consistently for reform in national and local elections. They sympathize with the suffering of ordinary Iranians who struggle daily under back-breaking economic conditions and strict social restrictions. They recognize that Iranians are the inheritors of an old civilization with a long tradition of tolerance and respect for human rights, including the establishment of the earliest democratic kingdom in 550 B.C. under Cyrus the Great. They know that Iranians have made great contributions to the arts, sciences and philosophy throughout the centuries.
They know that the Iranian people stood in friendship with the United States after the attacks of September 11. They know that the Iranian-American community is one of the most successful and law-abiding immigrant groups in the United States. They know that Iranians in Iran are tired of violence and bloodshed and want to achieve their aims of freedom and democracy peacefully. Most importantly, they know that Iranians are a fiercely nationalistic people who have fought hard to repel all intruders, invaders, and colonizers from around the globe. They know that sovereignty is the number one priority for the Iranian nation as witnessed, rather painfully, during the 1979 Revolution.
Let us now pose the question of how and if America should help Iranians achieve their aims. It is precisely at this juncture where opinions diverge. I will try and lay out what I believe these positions to be. To begin with, I wonder why some believe America should, in fact, help Iranians? Is it because Americans are the “champions” of civil rights, human rights, and liberal reform, as one Iranian youth from Tehran wrote recently? A quick look at history will reveal that this idea was shunned by Iranians in 1979. Not only did Iranians reject Western secularism under the Shah, they spewed decades of hatred toward the nation which exported that culture. Some want to think that it is America's fault that there is little freedom in Iran. But first they must ask when it become the responsibility of the American government to provide freedom to Iranians? What then is the meaning of the Iranian government, I wonder? What makes Iranians Iranian and not American?
Suffering from the backlash of their actions 23 years later, Iranians say they want democracy. Most will say they wanted democracy all along, but due to outside intervention by the likes of Britain, Russia, and America, democracy was prevented from taking root inside Iran. They will point to 1953 and the CIA's role in Mossadegh's overthrow as proof of this. They will say it wasn't Western secularism they were opposed to in 1979, but rather the authoritarian policies of the Shah and America's support for his regime.
Iranians will say they want a true democracy in Iran, as they always have. But what some Iranians still don't realize is that democracy is not something you buy from a store. It is not a gift someone gives to you wrapped in a pink ribbon. There is no other way to achieve and sustain democracy but to develop it on your own. In other words, there's no point for someone to give you democracy if you don't learn it yourself. A nation must learn democracy or else it will destroy it.
Also, democracy is not free. You have to pay for it. Some American policy-makers believe that it is in American interests to help the process along inside Iran. But what do they mean by “process”? Do Iranians really think that America will spend billions of dollars installing a democracy inside Iran and want nothing in return? We're talking about the money of American tax-payers and the blood of American soldiers. Do they think it is an easy task to install a democracy in Iran? And why would they think Americans would trust the Iranian people again?
What some tend to forget is a very important concept which regulates human interactions, one which is the epitome of American culture more than human rights or liberal democracy are. It is the concept of a free lunch. There is no free lunch. You don't get something for nothing in America, and Americans don't give you something for nothing. Iranians were upset with America in the 1970s for supporting a megalomaniacal monarch, but they took for granted the immense benefits of the U.S.-Iranian friendship, including huge capital flows and modernization of the country. They rejected those benefits and wanted their sovereignty instead. Well, they got it.
Are Iranians now willing to give up Iranian sovereignty in return for “democracy”? Would that be an acceptable version of democracy? How about in return for secularism, freedom of speech, and night clubs in Tehran? It's a hard question but I'm afraid it must be answered before asking for American help. I'm afraid most Iranians of an older generation have already answered it. If the American military attacks Iran tomorrow to bring “democracy” to Iran, killing 10,000 Iranians along the way, who will Iranians side with? The hope of democracy brought by American soldiers or dead Iranians? Who will they trust, their Iranian neighbor or the American democrat? Let us re-ask the question, should Americans bring democracy to Iran? Should they trust Iranians? Why again?
There are two schools of thought for American policy-makers who believe that America should actively help the “process” along. Neither are inspired by the goal of democracy and freedom for Iranians. They are inspired by the untapped gold mine that Iran is. On the one hand, there are those who would like to see a reconciliation between the Iranian government and the American government along the European model. They believe through increased economic, diplomatic, and cultural contacts, reform will eventually and inevitably follow.
Others believe the United States should do the exact opposite, a la Ariel Sharon. They should bomb Bushehr, overthrow the mullocracy, and install a Western-friendly government along the lines of a Reza Pahlavi-run secular regime friendly to America and Israel. Whether it's a constitutional monarchy or a democracy is up to the Iranian people to decide, the viewpoint goes. There should be little doubt, however, about where Iran's foreign and trade policies will come from in this scenario. Iranians cannot maintain an independent, non-aligned posture in the world based on the proud history and culture of the Persian civilization but then also expect outsiders to pick up the tab for their personal freedom. You simply cannot have your cake and eat it too.
Many Iran scholars want to see the Iranian revolution play itself out, if only to maintain the integrity and strength of the Iranian nation-state. It has been 23 years since the revolution and what political scientists see is exactly 23 years of political evolution. Despite the genuine frustrations felt by the Iranian populace, the country has undergone major transformations in the past two and half decades. It has fought a brutal eight year war and successfully protected the territorial integrity of the country; it has moderated its foreign and domestic policies; it has held elections; it has become more or less self-sufficient; it has experienced a cultural renaissance in journalism, art, and cinema.
These achievements are not to discount the oppression and setbacks suffered from isolation and corruption. Many Iranians were silenced, imprisoned, tortured and killed. Iranian women continue to suffer from institutionalized discrimination. But as bleak as the situation might look today, Iranians should never make the same mistake they made in 1979 by assuming that a situation cannot get worse. Iran can grow still weaker and more polarized tomorrow if short-sighted policies are followed. Iran could cease to be a country altogether. Conditions can always get worse.
Iranians don't like their president, that's too bad because many Americans don't like theirs either. Vote him out. Iranians think there is fraud within the Iranian system? Well welcome to the club. There's fraud in the American system, as well–not only in the political system, but in the financial system, too. There are flaws in every system. Fundamentalists in control of the Iranian government? Well guess what, fundamentalists have taken control of the American government, as well! Iranians might be surprised, but there are serious obstacles to change in America as there are in Iran — they're called gridlock, special interests, corporations, discrimination.
Citizens must work patiently to change things peacefully. You don't see liberals in America pleading with Europeans to help them overthrow President Bush. The difference is that Americans accept their government as their creation, good and bad, and they work internally to influence it. Every citizen is responsible to participate. They are expected to accept the outcome of the democratic process even when they hate it, even when imperfect. They are required to help change it. It's called responsibility and accountability. Most of the time change comes at a snail's pace in democracies. It takes years to notice.
Iranians should expect nothing different if it wants to be a democracy. There is nothing about corruption which is unique to Iran or unique to clerics. Sure, Iranians were hurled backward. And yes, they face a difficult moment in their history. Their suffering is unique, indeed. But before Iranians can make significant political progress, they must own up to their government. They cannot keep uprooting what they've planted hoping to import a healthier seed which might grow faster. The more you destroy a nation's political roots, the weaker becomes the fiber of the state. If you uproot now, you've lost at least 23 years. You've lost your roots.
How wise is it to plant the seed you threw out decades earlier? If it didn't grow then, will it grow now? Iranians must own up to the culture and to the history which has created their society. They must trust their decisions and they must agree to disagree. Iranians must look within, not without, to understand their problems and find solutions. When they do, they will, again, believe that they can make a difference. They will trust that they are in control of their destiny, and not some distant military power 226 years old. Instead, Iranians must draw on their own national experience — over 5,000 years of it.
Iranians must continue their struggle to achieve freedom at home. They must vote, they must protest, they must go to court, they must write, they must lead, they must resign from their positions. They must not give up hope. They must draw, they must make films, they must record songs, they must appeal verdicts, they must continue to learn and continue to demand more. In every way, they must stay active in their society to make a difference. They must unite and they must learn to trust each other once again. They must realize that their strength lies in their differences and not in their similarities.
Iranians must effect a reconciliation of their nation and purify its soul. Each person must contribute, personally, to create a democracy. Iranians must learn to tolerate each other and live together. Never should Iranians invite foreigners to side with them against other Iranians. Never should they ask foreigners to change their country — never. Never until that time when they are willing to give up their country. Iranians must learn democracy in order to live in a democracy.