The US and Iran’s Quest for Democracy

by Saeed Vaseghi

If the recent US threats and actions damage the propcess of development of new democratic structures in Iran, then it will not be the first time that Iranians’ efforts to build a democratic system has been setback by foreign intervention. The last major intervention in Iran was the US-backed coup detat against the democratically-elected government of Mossadegh in 1953, followed by 25 years of state terror and repression that convinced most Iranians that the US did not wish to see democratic progress in Iran, and gave cause to expressions of anti-US feelings.

It can be argued that Iran has a stronger claim to a democratically-elected government than the US. Iran’s President Khatami has been elected by an overwhelming majority of Iranians for a second term. In contrast, there is some controversy on whether President Bush won a majority of the votes in the US election.

President Khatami’s efforts to find common ground between different or opposing international interests, and his civilising idea of dialogue among civilisations is in sharp contrast to US’s unilateral and militaristic approach to problem solving. The US even rejects advice from its allies, such as France and Germany, on a greater reliance on diplomacy and negotiations.

Furthermore, the label "a rogue State" levelled at Iran (and generally those who dare to disregard the US’s dictates) is a more fitting description of the US foreign policy, given its consistent disregard for the authority of the UN and for international treaties such as the Koyoto and the ABM. The US was also found guilty, by the International Court of justice, of effectively terror against another country in a case brought by Nicaragua.

US-backed regimes in the Middle East are not particularly well known for their commitments to democratic development and human rights. Under the Shah, whose regime was installed and supported by the US, Iranians lived in terror of his security service.

Iran is now firmly on the learning path of development of democratic institutions and a pluralistic culture based on the realities and complexities of its own social traditions and political history. Iran has a long way to go, but it is on the right direction. In Iran there are passionate debates at all levels of the society, and most notably in the press, the parliament, the government, and the state, between various forces of conservatism and the progressive forces of modernisation.

These political forces happen to reflect the texture and the realities of the Iranian society. These debates are a necessary learning process as part of the development of a culture of pluralism and democracy in Iran, a process that was so often interrupted by those who do not consider a democratic Iran in their economic interests.

Iran is currently the only model of a developing democracy in a predominantly Moslem county in the Middle East and Central Asia. Nowhere else in the Middle East or Central Asia, other than Iran, people demonstrate for democracy, because elsewhere in the Middle East the political development priorities are substantially different from Iran. Previously, during the Shah there were not demonstrations in Iran for democracy, because people knew the limitations of the Shah’s police state, and that as a compliant servant of the US interests providing more democracy, and accountability was not in the Shah’s gift.

The development of democratic civil societies is the key to stability in the Middle East and elsewhere. It is not a chance coincident that most of the hijackers who crashed aeroplanes into WTC and Pentagon were Saudi nationals. The Saudis are a major buyer of expensive weapons. Indeed, the perception in the Middle East is that the US and its allies install and support undemocratic regimes in order to continue to stifle progress, create dependency and sell arms.

The Shah was also a major buyer of expensive arms at a time when the overwhelming majority of the Iranians lived in abject poverty and needed basic civil infrastructure such as roads, electricity and health care. This is seen by the population as a form of extortion or taxing of the people of these countries because the trillions of dollars wasted on arms would deduct from the money that could have been spent on civil and economic development. These people know that what they need are schools, universities, hospitals and civil and democratic infrastructures. Instead, they feel that they have imposed on them tension, militarism, and war, leading to a deep sense of frustration, helplessness and ultimately of not having much to lose and then to such tragedies as those of September 11.

The Bishop of Winchester Michael Scott-Joynt brilliantly observed that to understand the horrors of September 11 one has to understand that the consequence of military-industrial economy is to keep the standard of living in the West high at the expense of the people of the southern hemisphere.

George Bush’s new world order is not any different to the older world orders. It is based on militarism, bullying, creating tension, and demonstrating that there is a price to be paid for disobedience, particularly if the disobedience is rooted in a desire for self-determination and democracy, as was the case with the US overthrow of Mossadegh. It seems what is behind the US president’s recent verbal attacks on Iran is his earlier demand for obedience: "You are either with us or against us".

The US sanctions against Iran, and the Iran-US mutual distrust are damaging to Iran and to a lesser extent to the US. Most Iranians wish to have a normal relation with the US, based on economic and cultural co-operation and mutual respect. If the US wished to help the Iranian democracy, it could lift the damaging sanctions, and even make a historic and symbolic gesture of apologising to Iranians for the well-documented US-led coup detat of 1953, which was followed by decades of repression imposed by the US-installed regime of the Shah. The US knows that its threats will only lead to an increase in tension and anxiety, further distort US-Iran relations and damage Iran’s democratic development. Iranians need time and space to develop their economy and their democracy and based on their own model.

Saeed Vaseghi is a University Professor and lives in London. He can be reached at: SaeedVaseghi@aol.com


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