11/12/2007 11:07 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Déjà Vu: On The Wrong Side Once Again

There is an infamous story among Iran historians. A few months before the late Shah Pahlavi was overthrown by a massive revolution in 1979 that ended 2,500 years of Persian monarchy, Jimmy Carter visited the Shah in one of his major kaakhs (mansions) in Tehran. Impressed by the glamorous black-tie dinner party, fabulous food and exotic music, Carter raised his glass following dinner and emotionally expressed gratitude for the Shah's hospitality and thanked him for turning the Middle East into an "island of stability." As he made his remarks, tears began running down from his eyes. But the tears were not due to his emotions, but because as the event was taking place, the Shah's guards outside the mansion had begun using massive amounts of tear gas to hold back thousands of students, clerics, intellectuals, workers and teachers who were protesting and were bent on bringing the dictator's rule to an end. A short while after Carter's visit, the Shah was overthrown and was forced to leave Iran in a revolution that gave ascend to today's anti-American clerical regime.

This story is extremely relevant today because the United States is now aligning itself on the losing side of a similar struggle - this time in Pakistan - which will likely result in anti-American forces possessing more power in the country's post-Musharraf political order.

The parallels between today's Pakistan and 1979's Iran are starching. Shah was a pro-American dictator who was ruling Iran with an iron fist. He was put back into power after the CIA and British Intelligence collaborated to overthrow the democratically-elected Mosaddeq in 1953. The United States decided to implement the coup d'état because Eisenhower - like other American presidents - looked at the world affairs through their own manufactured bipolar view that saw the United States in a struggle against - not dictatorships and oppression, but - the "Red Scare" and communism. The U.S. falsely believed that because Mosaddeq belonged to the left and was a nationalist, he was going to align himself with the Soviets. Of course, it is now a well-established fact that Mosaddeq had every intention to uphold the rule of democracy and move Iran toward independence from foreign intervention, and hence he was determined to obstruct the Soviets' influence just as he intended to prevent American influence. The 1979 revolution was a direct product of the 1953 coup in that - after Mosaddeq's election - it was a second attempt to end Pahlavi's rule. But once again, the U.S. aligned itself with the non-democratic side by protecting the Shah, and that alienated the moderate intellectuals and led them to support the biggest anti-American faction in the revolution, which was Khomeini and the Islamists. It was anti-Americanism that gave the Islamists a momentum over other anti-Shah factions - such as nationalists or seculars - and led to the establishment of today's theocracy.

The United States aligned itself against democracy time and again in Iran because democracy promotion has never been America's true priority. In American leaders' eyes, the struggle has always been bipolar in nature, but the forces are America's short-term interests versus anything that may jeopardize those interests, including democracy. During the Cold War, the struggle was not about Democracy v. Communism; it was America versus Communism. So even if a communist leader was duly elected to power by his/her own people, America opposed his/her rule regardless. And today, the struggle is not Democracy versus Terrorism or oppression. It rather remains America's short-term interests versus anything that may jeopardize those interests, including democracy.

It is within that context that America has once again aligned itself with the wrong side of the struggle, this time in Pakistan. George Bush has struck an incomprehensible alliance with the dictatorial General Musharraf after the former decided to call Pakistan an "ally against terror." In other words, as long as Pakistan makes the promise to help us kill our enemies, we care little how Musharraf treats his own citizens or how much he hurts the cause of democracy in his own country. Musharraf has been of little value to the United States in terms of fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban elements in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Northwest Pakistan because he has been too afraid to offend radical elements within his own country. But he has also repeatedly undermined democracy in Pakistan by continuing to suppress dissent and suspend the country's top judge and the rule of law as a whole. And he has now imposed a state of emergency - emergency being popular demand for democracy - declared martial law and greatly limited presidential candidates' mobility to campaign for the upcoming elections. While he has promised to hold elections as scheduled before January 9, his promises ring hollow as he has made such promises in the past and not followed through. Nevertheless, the Bush administration has continued to support him. Condoleezza Rice said she was "disappointed" about the recent developments in Pakistan. That is grossly misrepresenting the gravity of the situation. One gets "disappointed" when Banana Republic runs out of khakis, not when the leader of a country that has hundreds of nuclear weapons - and someone we have closely associated ourselves with and gave more than 10 billion dollars to since 2001 - declares martial law, suspends national laws and casts a shadow on the prospects of democratic elections.

In 1979 in Iran, what helped Islamic radicals to achieve victory over other anti-Shah factions was that America's unequivocal support for the Shah made the struggle for power in a post-Shah Iran about who was the most anti-American. Islamists were the most anti-American, and that is why even secular moderates and intellectuals ran to their support. The United States continued to support the dictator even after his overthrow by protecting him in American custody. It was America's refusal to return the Shah to Iran to be put on trial that led to the storming of American embassy and the hostage crisis. Twenty-eight years later, the United States is making the same mistake by supporting the wrong side of a struggle that is likely to lead all anti-Musharraf factions to run on an anti-American platform. While the Western media would like to draw the image that Bhutto - who is a pro-American opposition leader - as wildly popular in Pakistan, the fact is that she is only slightly more popular than Musharraf, widely distrusted and unlikely to be Pakistanis' long-term choice. If the United States continues to support Musharraf, the most sustainable force that will likely take control of the country - and its nuclear arsenal - will be the one that is by the definition the most anti-American.

The United States doesn't always align itself against democracy. Depending on who our political leaders believe can serve our short-term interests better, we sometimes support democracies. But the main point is that what determines who becomes our ally has little to do with how democratic they are and everything to do with how vigorously they promise to defend the short-term economic and geopolitical interests of the United States. The cases of Pahlavi and Musharraf are not the only times when the United States has aligned itself with outlaw elements or against democracy. A few others include Reagan's alignment with Contras against the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and America's opposition to Hamas in Palestine, Chavez in Venezuela, Morales in Bolivia and Ahmadinejad in Iran, and its support for Hussein in Iraq, Saudi Royal Family in Saudi Arabia, the Taliban in Afghanistan, Netanyahu, Sharon and Olmert in Israel and Saakashvili in Georgia (who also declared his own state of emergency last Wednesday and sent his riot police to use tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets to clear thousands of protesters from the streets). We similarly break our alignment with such elements when they stop serving our interests, as in the case of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban. Intent to defend our self-interests is also why the U.S. is more concerned about Iran's nuclear program than the ruling clerics' three decades of crimes against human rights.

The United States is right to do its best to secure its own interests. But our support for non-democratic elements has undermined our interests because the American leaders have repeatedly failed to understand that realism and idealism are not opposing values; in fact, they go hand-in-hand. In other words, the only way to protect the long-term interests of the United States and effectively eradicate terrorism is by living to our own stated idealist policy of democracy promotion and side with those who are truly fighting for democracy. That way, the United States does not have to worry about the anti-American characters like Chavez to get democratically elected, because if America aligns itself with democratic elements, anti-Americanism will have little appeal among pro-democracy people.


Pahlavi and Carter; Bush and Musharraf