[OVERSEASVIEW]Democracy has to be grown at homeFancy meeting you here! On his first official visit to Tehran, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki was greeted by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Unnoticed by most Americans, while U.S. President George W. Bush extolled Iraq as “a young but hopeful democracy” with a “unity government” in his national television address on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, Iraq’s chief executive, Nouri al-Maliki, was hobnobbing with the leaders of Iran, a member of Bush’s “Axis of Evil.” On the eve of his meeting with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei ― a rare honor for a visiting dignitary ― Prime Minister Maliki called the Islamic Republic of Iran “a good friend and brother.” Such a statement runs counter to Mr. Bush’s policy of isolating Iran from the international community by focusing exclusively on Tehran’s uranium enrichment. At the same time, it illustrates that the regimes deriving legitimacy from different versions of democracy in the Middle East can be warm friends.
The process of reconciliation between the two neighbors began in May 2004 when Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi arrived in post-Saddam Hussein Baghdad to meet his Iraqi counterpart, Hoshiyar Zebari, a Kurdish leader who had collaborated with Iran against Mr. Hussein during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. They issued a joint statement: “Saddam committed aggression against Iran [in 1980], Kuwait [in 1990] and against the Iraqi people.” Iraq’s defense minister, Saadun Al-Dulaimi, built on the foundation laid by Mr. Zebari and Mr. Kharrazi during his July 2005 trip when he met his Iranian counterpart Ali Shamkhani. At a joint press conference, he announced that a mutual military and anti-terrorism agreement would include Iranian help in training Iraq’s reconstituted armed forces.
This came as a nasty shock to the Bush administration. To have a member of its self-declared Axis of Evil involved in training Iraq’s emerging military ― a project monopolized by the Pentagon ― was unacceptable. Its unrelenting pressure on the Iraqi government resulted in the collapse of the proposed Baghdad-Tehran defense cooperation pact. Even so, the underlying dynamic of closer ties between the two countries remained intact. Significantly, the first foreign leader greeted by the Maliki government, installed on May 20, was Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki. He met Mr. Maliki as well as Mr. Zebari, who retained the foreign ministry in the new government. “We do not want [weapons of mass destruction] next door, but Iran’s program is for peaceful purposes,” Mr. Zebari said. “We believe in the wisdom of the Islamic Republic leadership in handling the subject, and we are against any tension with the Islamic Republic.”
Though a Sunni and a leader of a secular faction, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Mr. Zebari was acutely conscious of the 750-mile border that Iran shares with Iraq, part of it along Iraq’s Kurdistan region. Mr. Zebari seemed equally conscious of the sectarian affinity existing between Shiites in the two nations, with theological links between the Shiite holy cities of Najaf in Iraq and Qom in Iran, going back centuries. That crucial historical factor loomed large before U.S. President George H. W. Bush after the 1991 Gulf War and led him to deny support to the anti-Hussein Shiite uprisings in southern Iraq. He realized that, freed from Mr. Hussein’s dictatorship, the overwhelmingly Shiite southern Iraq would ally with Iran. Tehran’s influence would thus extend to the oil-rich monarchies of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
In stark contrast, as late as January 2003, that president’s son, current President Bush, had not grasped the fact that Islam is divided among Sunnis and Shiites. Mr. Bush was not alone among top policymakers in Washington who didn’t bother to grasp salient points of Iraq’s history and culture. Instead, they accepted the unsubstantiated assertions of anti-Saddam exiles that the Iraqi people were predominantly secular.
Until 1638, Mesopotamia, consisting of the Arab region of modern Iraq, changed hands between the Shiite Persian Safavid Empire and the Sunni Ottoman Turkish Empire. This continued after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after World War I and the forming of modern Iraq with the addition of the Kurdish majority province of Mosul by the victorious British, who installed a Sunni monarch in Baghdad. The overthrow of the monarchy in 1958 followed by a Baathist military coup in 1967 left intact the historic subordination of Shiites. With the jack-boot of the Baathist dictatorship lifted and the principle of one person, one vote, applied strictly, as planned by the Bush administration, Shiites were bound to be in the driver’s seat, with most opting for an Islamic state. As for Iran, U.S. policymakers seem oblivious that the theocratic regime in Tehran which they detest is the end-result of the actions taken by Washington.
After World War II, Iran was poised to evolve into a secular, multiparty democracy that would pursue progressive nationalist policies and assume control over the country’s oil.
When in 1951 Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh nationalized the petroleum industry ― the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, owned and managed by the British ― Britain co-opted the United States to overthrow the democratically-elected government. With the British MI6 as its junior partner, the Central Intelligence Agency implemented a coup against Mossadegh in August 1953 and unveiled a royal dictatorship under Shah Mohammed Reza. A quarter-century later, the Shah’s regime was overthrown by a revolutionary movement consisting of several political forces led by the mosque. Since then, Shiite clerics have established a political-administrative system that combines rule by Islamic law with a representative government. There is little doubt that Iran has tried to fashion its own model of democracy rooted in its history and culture. In the final analysis, only a home-grown variety of democracy can take root in the countries of the Middle East, not a Jeffersonian model imposed by America. The fallout of the United States’ intervention in Iran 1953 and Iraq 50 years later has virtually ensured rejection of the American model.
* The writer is the author of “Secrets and Lies: Operation ‘Iraqi Freedom’ and After” and “The Iranian Labyrinth: Journeys Through Theocratic Iran and Its Furies,” both published by Nation Books.
by Dilip Hiro