July 6, 2009

NIAC Memo: Reading Independence Day in Iran

American and Iranian revolutionary traditions surprisingly have much in common.

When Americans celebrate the 4th of July, they often forget that the core purpose of the famous document penned by Thomas Jefferson was to declare independence from Great Britain.

Had the colonies failed in that struggle for freedom to govern themselves, the Declaration of Independence’s famous “unalienable” rights to equality, liberty, and life would have been rendered not self-evident.

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Like America, Iran’s 1979 Revolution, had much to do with throwing off perceived shackles of foreign domination.  One hundred years ago, imperial Britain and Russia strangled Iran’s first Constitutional revolution.  Similarly, in 1953, the US CIA orchestrated the overthrow of a democratically elected government.  Restoring the Shah to his throne caused subsequent repression to be seen as made in America.

The revolution’s widely celebrated achievement of independence means that Iranians today are less likely to blame foreigners for perceived failings of the Islamic Republic. Yet history is not forgotten, Iranians remain keenly suspicious of foreign meddling in their internal affairs.

Revolutions notoriously struggle to live up to their principles, and America and Iran are no exceptions.  Independent America long did not live up to its own founding ideals.  Most painfully, the meaning of the truth “all men are created equal” was bitterly contested, leading to a blood-soaked civil war in the 1860’s and to the essentially non-violent civil rights movement in the 1960’s.

Parallels to Iran again abound.  Iran’s reformist movement for nearly 3 decades has been calling for the Islamic Republic to implement its own revolutionary promises of Islamic democracy, freedom, and government accountable to the people.

Diverse critics within the Islamic Republic also have been deeply conscious of Iran’s flagging image before the world.  During the recent political contest, all three challengers to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sharply criticized his foreign policy style and rhetoric, his questioning of the holocaust, for having badly tarnished Iran’s reputation.  Mir Hussein Musavi lamented how an Iranian passport had become less valuable in the eyes of the world than one from Somalia.

Americans too understand the importance of international prestige.  In the very first sentence of the American Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote that “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” required that they should “declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”  As Jefferson reflected nearly 50 years later, the Declaration’s object was to “appeal to the tribunal of the world… to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take.”

International legitimacy is not just of the past, but of the present for Americans.  When protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago were being beaten and jailed, they defiantly chanted, “The whole world is watching.”

More recently, the disregard for the “opinions of mankind” came to define the presidency of George W. Bush.   His slogan “you’re either with us or against us,” and his policies of using force abroad without international support, of torture, of unending detentions without due process, of appearing to ignore America’s own values, all hurt American prestige and influence.

Like Bush, Ahmadinejad today appears to be thumbing his nose at the world.  The searing images of Basiji militia beating and even shooting peacefully demonstrating protesters, of opposition leaders being rounded up, are not foreign creations, but home-grown embarrassments, of an Iranian government not living up to its revolutionary ideals.

Iran’s crisis of legitimacy at home is a struggle with Iranian roots, one that only Iranians can resolve successfully.  Were America to take sides too frontally with the Iranian reformists, it would be the proverbial “kiss of death” for them.

And yet, as President Obama notes, “The world is watching.”

Earlier this year, the Iranian and American presidents both stressed the importance of “mutual respect,” of recognizing what independence, equality, regional leadership, and freedom mean to both countries.   For Iran, an open question is how will it respect its own people and heal the deep fissures recently opened.

This need not be a clash of alien values, of America vs. Iran.
One hundred years ago, Howard Baskerville, a 24-year old missionary educator, became Iran’s American martyr while trying to help Iranians then struggling for freedom.  He’s still admired in Iran; in 2005, former President Mohammed Khatami unveiled a sculpture of Baskerville in Tabriz’s Constitutional House museum.  Before his death, Baskerville explained to skeptical friends that “The only difference between me and these people is my place of birth, and that is not a big difference.”
He was right.   

About the authors: Wm. Scott Harrop is a recent Jefferson Fellow at Monticello’s Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies. R. K. Ramazani is Edward R. Stettinius Professor Emeritus of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia and co-editor of Religion, State, and Society: Jefferson’s Wall of Separation in Comparative Perspective.

Note: This article was first published by Agence Global and it it being reprinted here with permission of the authors.




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