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The camel never forgets
Bush should press IRI for democratic reforms

May 3, 2003
The Iranian

In my part of the world they say the camel never forgets. As you know, Mr. Rafsanjani, the super-wealthy former president and behind-the-scene operator of the Islamic Republic, made a conciliatory gesture toward the U.S. a while back by proposing to hold a public referendum on the restoration of relations with the United States, aka the Great Satan.

The camel remembers that only 3 weeks prior to this pronouncement, Mr.Rafsanjani had anticipated Americans to be bogged down in a bloody quagmire before they get to Baghdad. This conciliatory gesture is a surprise to no one. It comes on the eve of a remarkable victory of the Allied forces against Saddam Hussein's regime, a foe the Islamic Republic was at war with for 8 years with nothing to show for it.

The current wisdom in the Iranian expat circles is the ruthless theocrats in Tehran have begun to see the writings on the wall; the word is the mullahs will stoop to any level, eat every disparaging word of the Islamic Republic's founder about the "Great Satan" just to save their skin.

Iranians inside the country that I have talked to since these remarks were published believe that Mr. Bush's response to this gesture will be a true test of America's intentions regarding the future of Iran.

Ever since the CIA-backed coup of 1953 that resulted in 25 years of dictatorship, Iranians held a long grudge against the U.S. for having ignored their democratic aspirations, a bitterness that translated itself into the American hostage crisis of the early 1980s.

However, as the behavior of the revolutionary regime further alienated America with its
continuous export of terrorism and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), domestically it alienated the Iranian people with oppression so brutal that it makes the Shah's torture chambers look like a stupid mistake.

As a result of this ironic twist of fate, a quarter century after taking part in the most popular and vehement anti-American revolutions in the world, the Iranian people are now feeling closer to America in their hearts and minds than most other nations on earth.

Judging from the emails and faxes pouring into the Persian Service of the Voice of America, George Bush now enjoys more support in Iran than here at home. Given the intensity of the anti-American fervor 25 years ago, who could have imagined such a reversal of sentiments after just one generation?

Which begs the question: can America afford to ignore such overflow of support and enthusiasm in what must be the most hostile region of the world? Is this not a perfect opportunity thrown in America's lap with the note: your naughtiness in 1953 is water under the bridge, let's talk?

President Bush and his spokespersons have said time and again that they do not recognize a handful of unelected officials of the Islamic Republic as the legitimate representatives of the Iranian people.

The president has said, at least on one occasion, that he recognizes no Iranian officials or institutions unless they are the true representatives, elected and empowered by the Iranian nation. He has said it more than once that he supports the struggle of the Iranian people, the youth and the women in particular, who wish and pray for a more open and democratic system of governance.

The kind of response that Mr. Bush's administration will in words and deeds deliver to the brutal dictators in Tehran will be watched closely, with particular attention paid to the tone of voice and the choice of diction.

In his message to the Iranian fundamentalists Mr. Bush will undoubtedly reiterate his administrations concern for the proliferation of WMD and support of international terrorism (just demands, both). But he must not stop there, and follow that up with pressing for democratic reform.

What people fear is the US government might get its wishes regarding the WMD and terrorism, and stop there. That would leave Tehran free to declare open season on dissidents, journalists and everyone else.

If the president fails in putting the pressure on Tehran to, for example, free all political prisoners, or lift the ban on the press, he will be seen as having ignored the Iranians' democratic aspirations. And, sadly, he will not be the first president to do so. Isn't the friendship of a nation of 70 million, in the most hateful region of the world, not more useful to America than reaching a compromise with a much hated regime that enjoys a mere 15 percent popularity within its borders?

It is hard to think that Mr. Bush's administration is unaware of the degree of disgust that Iranians hold against the likes of Mr. Rafsanjani and Mr. Khamenei. It is unthinkable that the administration would even contemplate not pressing the regime for democratic reforms at the end of which the Iranian people will stand to benefit. But then again, everything is possible in politics; the only certainty is that Iranians, being an ancient people, have a long memory, and the camel never forgets.

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