On January 20, President George W. Bush will take the oath of office on the steps of the US Capitol for the last time. That day will mark the beginning of his second presidential term, a four-year period full of new opportunities for the advancement of liberty both at home and abroad.One of these opportunities is a golden one involving Iranians and their campaign for a secular, democratic government at peace with its neighbors and accountable to nobody but the Iranian people themselves.
As millions of Eastern Europeans, Georgians, Afghans and Ukrainians have learned over the past three decades, freedom is never achieved without a price. And Iranians of all ages, genders, classes, and faiths have been paying a very heavy one now for more than a quarter of a century. The list of atrocious crimes committed by the ruling Shia clerics and their supporters against Iranians and others is far too long to include in this piece. But that does not mean that they have been forgotten. It is these unforgivable acts committed in the name of God that have led millions of Iranians to use whatever channels available to express their desire to breathe finally the fresh air of freedom.
Ever since the election of Mohammad Khatami as president of the Islamic Republic in 1997, Iranians have repeatedly proven their willingness to use non-violent methods to effect meaningful change. However, after having voted for “reformists” in a series of non-competitive elections (parliamentary, municipal and presidential) and having received nothing substantial in return (in terms of political and economic freedoms), they realized that reform within the current regime was and is impossible. And voting in these sham elections is not the only method to which they have resorted.
Over the past years, Iranians have peacefully protested in the streets, staged sit-ins, boycotted elections (such as last February's parliamentary election), participated in strikes (such as the teachers'union strike that was violently disrupted during UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's trip to Tehran in 2002), gone on hunger strikes, and been in and out of prison (including the infamous Evin Prison). And not once did they receive the moral support they deserve from the international community.
To the UN there is no such thing as a freedom movement inside Iran. And the European triumvirate of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom is much more interested in preserving and expanding its role in Iran's energy sector than in facing the current realities inside the country ñ that the vast majority of Iranians despise this authoritarian regime, that it is well on its way toward acquiring nuclear weapons (if it has not already done so) to secure its own power, and that it is the hub of terrorism in the world.
President Bush has made a few comments supporting the pro-democracy movement in theory, but has done little to show for it. This is unfortunate because many Iranians, particularly the younger generation, took his words to heart and believed in him even when he did not take action.
To many it was a hopeful sign to have finally a US president who was willing to take a firm stand against terrorism. And decisive action followed the words of the president in the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet, the issue of Iran quietly moved to the shadows. The president decided to let the triumvirate work it out for him. But work out what? What have all these meaningless agreements with the mullahs achieved in the end? Nothing. They have only contributed to a creeping sense of frustration and hopelessness for Iranians and their just cause.
If President Bush actually meant what he said in his 2002 State of the Union address (“'We know their true nature”), then he should abandon support for the game currently being played by the Europeans and the mullahs and begin to extend genuine moral and political support to the people of Iran. He should also ensure that the Iranian people understand that the US government is unified on this issue and will not “cut a deal” with the mullahs that would let them remain in power. This would help assuage any fears that President Bush might abandon the people's cause and ignore their enormous sacrifices for a democratic future.
A secular and democratic Iran at peace with her neighbors and fully integrated in the world economy would be a useful ally not only in the “war on terror,” but also in the “war for democracy” in the Middle East. The dramatic transition from an Islamist state to a democratic one would inspire democrats throughout the Muslim world. And it would be a huge blow to all those, whether they be Shia or Sunni, who were first encouraged by the Ayatollah Khomeini to promote the cause of jihad around the globe.
That is why it is important for President Bush to support the establishment of democracy in Iran, perhaps even more so than in Iraq because it is the Iranian mullahs who are desperately trying to derail the democratic process in Iraq by supporting terrorism.
Freedom does indeed have a high price. Everyday hundreds of brave Iranians, Iraqis, and American soldiers are paying for it at the hands of the clerical dictatorship in Tehran. It is for these courageous individuals that President Bush, as leader of the free world, must show the necessary moral and principled leadership during his second term, for the path to greater freedom in the Middle East now runs through Tehran.