January 2, 2005

Iranian past holds lessons for Iraq's future

By Fariborz S Fatemi

The controversy raging over Iran and the pending election in Iraq will be better understood if these events are seen through the historical prism of what happened in Iran some 50 years ago. That was a time when state and religion had great coherence in Iran and when, sadly, the United States helped the British overthrow a freely elected constitutional government. The implications of that heinous act have echoed across half a century of Middle East history and present real lessons for the US role in Iraq, in its relations with Iran and the future of democratic rule in the region.

This can be best illustrated through the life and times of a national hero of Iran, Dr Hussein Fatemi. He was the leader of a generation of pious Muslims who brought coherence, constitutional government, free elections and the rule of law back to the people of Iran. He was a founder of the National Front Party that brought Dr Mohammed Mossadegh to power in 1951, and he was the inspiration for nationalizing Iran's oil so that its revenues could be used to benefit the people of Iran.

Not since the short-lived constitutional revolution of the early 1900s had the people of Iran been so in control of their own destiny as when Dr Fatemi lived. The freely elected constitutional government he was part of, led by Mossadegh, governed in harmony with nationalism and democratic values enshrined in the Holy Koran.

For believers, the Holy Koran is a blueprint for conducting one's life. For governing, it points out, govern with the consent of the governed. These values are as old as Islam itself, and that is how Mossadegh governed. That government was overthrown by a coup and was replaced by the hated regime of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, which ended with the Islamic Revolution of 1979. November 10 marked 50 years since Dr Fatemi was murdered by the Pahlavi regime. Yet today he is alive, as part of every Iranian striving for a better life.

As with Iran some 50 years ago, the depressing truth is that everything this US administration has done in Iraq has turned out to be either wrong or woefully mismanaged. Because of this, more than 1,200 brave American servicemen have died and countless others have been grievously wounded.

As the teeth-gnashing goes on about holding free elections in Iraq, as imperfect as that may be, it would serve US policymakers well to recollect that government of Iran some 50 years ago. The issues for the people of Iraq have always been sovereignty, legitimacy, occupation and promises unfulfilled. Remembering US actions in Iran, Iraqis desperately need to believe that the United States does not have any long-term designs on their country.

The interim governments fashioned by the United States lack credibility and legitimacy, and Americans are seen as occupiers. No government can claim legitimacy unless it is freely elected. That is why it is important to stick with the January date for the election. Delay only means more death and destruction.

The Iraqi people ask: "Where are the jobs, the promised electricity, water, sewers and reconstruction?" More of the same policies only mean that those who want to kill Americans will continue to do so with impunity. And the United States in turn will destroy Iraq in order to save it.

When the election takes place and majority rule, which may have religious ties, is established, it would be well to remember the Iranian model. That model was a powerful, irrefutable case, proving that democracy in harmony with Islam can work.

The United States must allow the Iraqis to develop that model to govern themselves. Only such a government will be seen as credible and legitimate by the Iraqi people, and only such a government will be able to end the insurgency and occupation. All along, this is what Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has always advocated.

Clearly, when the US administration talks about transforming the Middle East by bringing democracy to the area, people remember Iran. And as long as no lessons are learned from the consequences of destroying a freely elected constitutional government and how that has affected generations of Iranians, any US initiative for the area will lack credibility, legitimacy and will remain what it is, just talk.

So deep is the animosity about that overthrow of some 50 years ago, that there is hardly a large gathering in Iran today where you do not see the portraits of Dr Mossadegh and Dr Fatemi held aloft by people who are at least a generation removed since they lived. They are reminding the world of an era that was filled with so much promise.

In the past 25 years, hundreds of books and articles have been written and numerous Internet sites have been established about these heroes of Iran. Their names adorn buildings and highways all over that country.

In the years before his death at the age of 32, Dr Fatemi was Iran's youngest prime minister, foreign minister and member of parliament. During this time, he was awarded the highest civilian medal declaring him "a patriotic son of Iran". But his proudest achievement was as editor and publisher of the daily newspaper Baktar Emrouz, which was the voice and conscience of a generation. By his pen and his speech, he could move people to action and challenge the many domestic and foreign intrigues that had become daily occurrences.

If that freely elected constitutional government, in harmony with Islam, had been allowed to flourish, surely the Middle East would not have been dominated by armed societies masquerading as democracies and client states governed by authoritarian dictators.

Democracy is that form of government which a free people elect freely, as Iran did some 50 years ago. When policymakers in the United States are willing to accept that as the gold standard, and promote it by their deeds, only then will their initiatives in Iraq and the region gain credibility and legitimacy.

Fariborz S Fatemi is a former professional staff member with the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

(Copyright 2004 Fariborz S Fatemi.)

Reproduced with permission from the author

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