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Faculty OpinionsRelease Date: May 28, 2004

R. K. Ramazani
Professor Emeritus of Politics
College of Arts & Sciences


Iran's recent parliamentary elections will put conservatives in control of that legislative body for the next four years. But the election results cannot extinguish the fire of the growing pro-democracy movement in Iran.

It is true that the hard-line conservatives' parliamentary victory is the most serious setback for President Khatami's pro-democratic government since he took office in 1997. But neither he nor his supporters have declared defeat.

And neither should the United States as it looks for ways to encourage democracy in Iran.

The danger for the U.S. lies in caving into the demands of knee-jerk conservatives, calling for a policy of confrontation with Iran. Instead, America's long-term interests would best be served by borrowing a page from Europe's playbook and crafting a policy of engagement.

The argument for confrontation with Iran is fundamentally flawed and displays an astonishing ignorance of the Iranian national character, history and modern political realities.

First, the defeat of the reformist-dominated parliament does not mean, and should not be equated with, the end of the pro-democracy movement in Iran. This movement strikes deep roots in Iranian history, beginning in 1905 with the Constitutional Revolution, which was essentially secular, nationalist and pro-democracy in nature.

The death of this first pro-democracy movement in 1907 and the return of decades of dictatorship was followed by the "revival of constitutionalism," a resurgence of a docile parliament, and the capture of the Iranian government by the nationalist pro-democracy movement led by the popularly elected Prime Minister Mohammad Musaddiq. This second bid for democracy and representative government also failed in 1953, followed by a secular dictatorship which ended with the eruption of the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

In recent years, the spectacular electoral victories of President Mohammad Khatami in 1997 and 2001 demonstrated that the previous dictatorships had failed to extinguish the embers of democracy. Millions of Iranians continue to burn with a desire for a political voice in their country's affairs. And today, Iran's pro-democracy movement is more widespread, more mature, and more vociferous than ever before.

The results of the two most recent presidential elections, the first municipal elections, and the previous parliamentary elections have shown that more than 20 million people - about 70 percent of Iran's eligible voters - participated. This is not the sign of a defeated people.

Instead, millions of politically aware young women and men overwhelmingly support the present pro-democracy and pro-American movement. When the clerics currently controlling the country, and manipulating election results, are finally forced aside, these young people will take their places as Iran's new leaders.

Second, President Bush's advisors who counsel confrontation with Iran are clearly ignorant of the Iranian national character and history. Iran's fierce sense of independence is as old as its millennial history and is rooted both in the glory of ancient Persia and in its Shi'i Islamic tradition of protest and opposition.

No matter how pro-democracy and pro-American a movement may be, when a foreign power threatens to intervene in Iranian affairs, directly or indirectly, citizens of all ideological stripes - reformists and conservatives - get their backs up. Iran's vivid reaction to President Bush's inclusion of Iran in "the axis of evil." in his first State of the Union address in 2001 is a classic example.

Iranians remember bitterly that their two experiments with democracy were defeated not only by domestic forces of reaction, but also by foreign intervention. The Constitutional Revolution was destroyed by the collusion of the British and Russian empires, which divided Iran into spheres of influence in 1907. And the pro-democracy government of Musaddiq was overthrown in 1953 by the United States and Britain.

Decades later former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright admitted the U.S. role in helping to overthrow a democratically elected government in favor of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and publicly expressed official regret.

In contrast to the confrontational U.S. policy toward Iran, advocated by American political conservatives narrowly focused on the results of Iran's recent elections, European governments have engaged the Iranian regime in minor, non-threatening ways, as a means of encouraging the Iranian people's pro-democracy movement. The Europeans, apparently understand better than their American counterparts that in the Iranian political culture the quest for democracy is inextricably intertwined with preserving a fierce sense of independence.

It's ironic that so far, the U.S. government has failed to grasp the inseparability of the twin principles of independence and liberty in Iran, enshrined as they are in the American Declaration of Independence.

R. K. Ramazani is Professor Emeritus of Politics at the University of Virginia and an internationally recognized authority on Iran and the Middle East.

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Last Modified: Thursday July 01, 2004