|March 19, 2007 at 19:07:24 || |
Part I of II: Democratic Aspirations in Iran and the Middle East I agree with one thing Condoleeza Rice said: we shouldn't give up on the democratic aspirations of the people of the Middle East!
Part I of II: Democratic Aspirations in Iran and the Middle East
I agree with one thing Condoleeza Rice said: we shouldn't give up on the democratic aspirations of the people of the Middle East!
I'm an American married to an Iranian American. We live several months of each year in Tehran, Iran. Over the years I've come to realize that the people in this region are very unhappy with oppressive governments. Though few Americans know this, the Middle East has a long history of people striving and even giving their lives for freedom and democracy. To understand why the region is plagued with dictators and monarchs, it is necessary to study history, including the role of the I-word, imperialism.
SETTING AN EXAMPLE OF DEMOCRATIC CITIZENSHIP. If we American citizens don't want to give up on the democratic aspirations of the people of the Middle East, and we don't believe the Bush-Cheney-Condi program is really about democracy, is there anything we can do to help? Yes, and it's easier than you might think.
To enable Middle Eastern people to achieve democracy, we must get our military out of their faces and work on improving democracy in our own country. We need to quit pointing fingers (and missiles!) at people in other countries and start looking in the mirror. Instead of focusing on what's right or wrong with the Middle East, we need to concentrate on what's right and wrong in our own country's foreign policy and in our own model of democracy.
For Iranians I've talked with over the years, more democracy would mean freedom from fear of repression, freedom to speak their minds, freedom to build a country that puts the good of its citizens first. However, given the history of colonialism and dictatorship in the Middle East, many people in the region are a little foggy about the nuts and bolts of citizenship in a democracy. For example, a lot of folks have picked up the habit of passively blaming their government (or foreign governments) for their problems without being able to envision what citizens might do about it. That's why our example of active citizenship could really make a difference.
People in the Middle East read books and articles, use the internet, watch satellite TV, go to college, discuss politics. They may lack experience with the practice of citizenship in a democracy, but they don't lack interest. Most Iranians I talk with, for example, think Americans are incredibly lucky; they watch us and they envy us. In my opinion, the least we can do is to practice the democracy we preach. We need to demonstrate the difference between what we citizens mean by democracy and the "unitary-presidency, corporations-running-wild" model Bush and Cheney represent. Working out the bugs in the democratic model could be our most generous gift to the world and to history.
FREE TRADE IS NOT THE SAME THING AS DEMOCRACY. Currently, a counterfeit of "freedom and democracy" for the Middle East is being peddled by the Bush administration: "liberal economic reform," that is, "free trade" for the U.S. with the region and a set of laws allowing U.S. companies to invest in and profit from local resources. This is all laid out by Antonia Juhasz in The Bush Agenda: Invading the World, One Economy at a Time (see http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/2979/spoils_of_war/).
The proposed U.S.-Middle East Free Trade Area (U.S.-MEFTA) is like NAFTA by force, and with countries that are not even our neighbors. Occupied Iraq is becoming a U.S.-MEFTA showcase. Twelve countries have taken steps toward "free trade" with the U.S. since the invasion. Is it a surprise that the two countries that have so far resisted joining are Iran and Syria? For some Iranians, however, what "rich and democratic" America is proposing for the region may look like the only way forward. Nevertheless, I've yet to meet anyone who wants America to "help" Iran like America "helped" Iraq.
Although American democracy is widely admired, the fact is that the US and the big powers do not have a good history of supporting democracy in the Middle East. Quite the contrary, some might argue. Why are we, who would never accept a king on American soil, so quick to become friends and allies with Middle Eastern kings? Don't we recognize the double standard? Do we think these throwbacks to a bygone era are "good enough" for the "natives"?
Or is it more insidious? The fact is, democratic movements in resource-rich areas have often been unpopular with the rich and powerful foreign interests that have grown accustomed to cheap access to those resources. We talk about democracy, but our government has often given generous military and political support to kings and dictators who keep their own citizens down and keep the climate favorable for, to use the polite phrase, foreign investors.
WHAT DOES DEMOCRACY LOOK LIKE? The democracy movement in the U.S. is already working toward goals that provide the best possible support to the democracy movement in the Middle East:
1. Impeachment of members of the executive branch who break the law, as explained by Abraham Lincoln when, as a Congressman, he sought impeachment of President James Polk for starting an illegal and imperialistic war with Mexico (http://www.opednews.com/articles/opedne_david_sw_070216_what_lincoln_really_.htm)
2. Election reform (transparency, paper trails, campaign finance reform, etc.)
3. Education about the history and peoples of the Middle East.
4. Withdrawal of American troops (and mercenaries, and military aid) from Iraq and the Middle East and promotion of a nuclear free Middle East.
5. A Truth and Reconciliation Process for the Middle East.
In Part II of this article, we'll discuss in more detail these goals and their potential effects on the Middle East.
A CENTURY OF STRUGGLE FOR DEMOCRACY IN IRAN. In pursuance of the third goal listed above, educating ourselves, let's discuss Iran, the resource-rich Middle Eastern country I know best. Numerous Iranian friends have recited for me the history of how various kings made shameful deals with foreigners, including giving up pieces of territory, and, of course, lucrative economic concessions (tobacco, minerals, oil). Opposition to these deals, going far back into history, is also remembered and honored. That opposition, because it favored Iranian people over exploiters and oppressors, belongs in the history of democratic thought in Iran.
August 2006 was the centennial of the Constitutional Revolution in Iran. Why don't Americans know that 100 years ago Iran had a constitution that limited the powers of its monarch, setting up a system similar to European constitutional monarchies in which the king "reigned" rather than "ruled"? One of the main issues for the constitutionalists, who were also nationalists, was that the king gave too many favors to foreign (czarist Russian and imperial British) economic interests. However, the king and his foreign allies struck back, and after years of warfare the pro-constitution forces eventually lost. Among the martyrs of the Constitutional Revolution still honored in Iran were Armenian leader Yeprem Khan, bandit-turned-revolutionary Sattar Khan, and American schoolteacher Howard Baskerville. A teacher at a Presbyterian mission school in Tabriz, Iran, young Baskerville had no trouble recognizing the democratic side; he led a band of nationalists to break the royal blockade starving the city and was shot at age 24 on April 19, 1909.
In 1953, Kermit Roosevelt of the CIA arranged a coup d'etat that toppled the elected government of popular Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, whose "crime" in the eyes of American oil companies had been nationalizing Iran's oil. The reinstalled "Shah" (king) ruled with an iron fist and the full support of the American government. The American government's cover story was that the Shah was our ally in the cold war against communist Russia. During the Shah's dictatorship, Iran's wealth flowed to U.S. interests as Iran purchased weaponry, manufactured products, education, technical expertise, even the beginnings of a nuclear power industry. Thousands of democracy seekers, some of them my friends and relatives, were jailed during the Shah's regime.
In 1979, in a popular uprising, Iranians finally overthrew the dictatorship and set up a republic (flawed though it came to be). Did the heirs of the American Revolution congratulate them and offer support? Guess again. The U.S. administration scurried to find a way to reverse the revolution. Assets were seized, boycotts and sanctions were imposed, visas were restricted, and Iran was labeled an outlaw, terrorist nation.
The hostage crisis served and still serves as a convenient excuse for U.S. "punishment" of post-revolution Iran. Few acknowledged the connection, however, between the 1953 coup and the "preemptive" seizure of the American embassy in Tehran (dubbed locally the "den of spies") by revolutionary students. The students believed that some folks working out of the embassy were spies plotting to bring back the same dictator in a rerun of the 1953 coup. Not that I'm justifying the taking of hostages; it's just that it's important to look for the reasons things happen.
After it was clear that the Iranian revolution could not be reversed, the U.S. administration encouraged Iran's neighbor, Iraq, to launch an all-out assault on Iran. Although the "world community" barely remembers Iraq's chemical weapons attacks on the Iranian town of Sardasht and on Iranian troops, thousands of women and men who survived the attacks suffer progressively more each year from their injuries, and children of survivors are still being born with disabilities. The execution of Saddam Hussein before he could be tried for those crimes left these unseen victims without closure.
THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION AND IRAN. What about today? We all know that the U.S. administration's policy is regime change in Iran. We are urged to hate and fear Iran's president and not to ask what the U.S. administration has in mind for Iran after the regime change. Bush is openly threatening Iran with aircraft carrier groups in the Persian Gulf and with a contingency plan to attack Natanz and other "targets" with bunker-busting "tactical" nuclear weapons. The Bush administration has arranged for the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on Iran even though what Iran is doing, enriching uranium for a nuclear power industry, is legal under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Someone I know, who worked in Iran's American-sponsored nuclear power industry during the time of the Shah, believes that powerful U.S. interests still want the U.S. to be the only country to sell nuclear power plants to Iran. Clearly, the U.S. government has blocked German and now Russian contractors from completing that project since the Americans left at the time of the revolution. The boycotts and interference with Iran's completion of their nuclear power plant started even before the current propaganda campaign (e.g., that Iran supposedly wants to build nuclear bombs to wipe out Israel). The economic motivation is just one person's theory, but it fits with the U.S. sale of nuclear technology to Libya, the increased U.S. competition with Russia, and with the plan for U.S.-MEFTA, doesn't it?
During the fall 2006 municipal elections in Iran, the Voice of America urged Iranians not to vote. So much for democracy. Recently there was a mysterious car-bombing in a southern province, accompanied by crocodile tears in the U.S. media about the "threat" of sectarian strife between Sunni and Shia in Iran, as if "divide and conquer" hasn't been U.S. (and Israeli) policy in the region all along. None of this, of course, encourages the besieged Iranian government to ease restrictions on citizens' political freedoms.
MINDING OUR OWN BUSINESS: PEACE AND DEMOCRACY. In the Middle East, you can't tell the players without a scorecard. The good news is that we Americans don't really need that scorecard because it's not our place to make decisions about who's who in the Middle East. If we citizens just tend to the business of our own democracy here in the U.S.A, and work for peace and disarmament, we will be helping like-minded people in the Middle East region to also achieve their democratic goals.
NEXT TIME, in Part II: How five specific goals of the American democracy movement can help the democracy movement in the Middle East.
Rosa Schmidt Azadi is a long-time peace activist, an anthropologist, and a retired civil servant who's also a wife, daughter, sister, aunt, great-aunt, godmother, and the mother of two college students. After walking out of the smoke of the 9-11 attacks in New York City and returning to participate in the recovery effort, Rosa began working to prevent further death and destruction in other countries at the hands of the U.S. government. Participating in a peace vigil at the World Trade Center site for more than three years gave her the privilege of talking with thousands of people from all over the world about things that matter most. Dr. Azadi has earned two advanced degrees and is still learning. Currently, she's splitting her time between Tehran, Iran, and upstate New York.