The following is the text of an address by (emeritus) Professor Ramazani of the University of Virginia on September 4, 2000, at the United Nations.
President Mohammad Khatami, ladies and gentlemen: When I was invited to speak about the role of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the new millennium in fifteen minutes, I said that I am no academic astrologer, but agreed to think it over for a few days before accepting. I thought because I have tried for half a century to deepen Western understanding of Iran by teaching and publishing in the United States, I should be able to say something near the end of my life that would be worthwhile. I would like, therefore, to talk of three intertwined propositions that might help clarify thinking on Iran’s future role in the world.
Let me start by saying that many observers believe that because Iran is strategically significant it will necessarily play a greater role in the world in the future than at present. Such thinkers usually list a variety of factors. For example, they point out that Iran has been coveted by foreign powers from the time of Alexander of Macedonia. It has been the cradle of one of the world’s greatest civilizations. It is located at the center of the world’s largest pool of energy. It straddles prominently the global oil and natural gas chokepoint at the Strait of Hormuz. It provides the cheapest and shortest transit route at the heart of the ancient Silk Road for the transport of energy resources from the Caspian Sea basin to world markets through the Persian Gulf. And it is the most populous country with one of the largest industrial bases in the vast region stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Eastern Mediterranean.
My first proposition is that none of these factors, in and of themselves, guarantees that the Islamic Republic will necessarily play a larger global role in the future than at present. Let me say why. If all these factors were enough, then Iran should have played a significant role in the international system. Yet, from the nineteenth century, when Iran was sucked fully for the first time into the whirlwind of world politics, to the eruption of the Iranian Revolution, Iran has played either the role of a weak and backward buffer state between imperial Russia and Britain or the role of a surrogate of Britain and the United States. It is important to learn from this searing historical experience. It can help illuminate Iran’s future role in the world. In Cicero’s memorable words: “To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to remain always a child.”
My second proposition is that having learned from such a dismal historical experience, the Iranian revolutionaries created an unprecedented opportunity for their leaders to utilize Iran’s strategic significance in such a way as to enable the people eventually to control freely their own destiny and play a major role on the world stage. To accomplish such lofty goals, the revolutionaries tried to create an authentic revolution. They drew at least in part on the unfulfilled historical aspirations of the people for freedom at home and an independent role in the world. Unlike such other contemporary revolutions as the Chinese, the Vietnamese and the Cuban, the Iranian revolution evaded the lure of Marxism-Leninism and created what Forrest D. Colburn calls “the most original of contemporary revolutions.”
The unfulfilled quest for independence and freedom strikes deep roots in the collective memory of the Iranian people. Two historic opportunities to fulfill these principles were quashed by foreign powers. Russia and Britain divided Iran into spheres of influence in 1907 and destroyed any chance for a constitutional government that could realize both independence and freedom. The American Morgan Shuster aptly characterized their imperial interferences in Iran’s internal affairs as “the strangling of Persia.” Decades later, the struggle for independence and freedom was once again stopped in its tracks. Ironically, the American government, the historical champion of Iran’s independence and freedom, used the CIA to destroy the nationalist government of Dr. Mohammad Musaddeq. For him the central choice facing Iran in the struggle against Britain was “independence or enslavement” (isteqlal ya enqiad).
Yet, the real blame for the loss of these two opportunities in the twentieth century must be placed primarily at the door of Iran’s own dynastic rulers. The Safavid and Qajar rulers in particular tried to mimic the Sassanian imperial paradigm and listened to poor political advice. On the one hand, the writers of syasat-namehs, such as Khajeh Nizam al-Mulk, advised rulers that people are rameh (chattel) and the king is shabban (shepherd), and that the people and the country belonged to the king, who could do what he pleased both within and outside of Iran. On the other hand, the writers of shariaht-namehs advised the rulers to avoid interaction with the dar-al-harb for fear that Iranians would be Christianized if they tried to understand the Western world.
None of these dynastic rulers and their contemporary thinkers, therefore, tried seriously to explore the intellectual and practical secrets of Western progress for the benefit of Iranian society and culture. They were all mesmerized by Western material paraphernalia, especially military hardware, as were the later Pahlavi rulers, who also mimicked the Sassanian imperial paradigm.
Aristotle tells us that learning from a poem is as valid as learning from scientific facts. Had all these rulers and the intellectuals of their times heeded Hafiz’s poetic advice, perhaps Iran would have played an independent role in the world long before the coming of the revolution. Hafiz, “The Tongue of the Hidden” (lisan al-ghahib) and “The Interpreter of Secrets” (tarjoman al-assrar), advised rulers:
Weigh not the seat of power with grandeur / Unless by deeds you’ve made the seat secure (my translation). [Takyeh bar jay-e bozorgan natavan zad begazaf / Ta-keh asbab-e bozorgi hameh amadeh koni.]
The Iranian Revolution did more than destroy the ancient institution of dynastic monarchy. In founding the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini captured in his best-known motto the principles of independence and freedom side-by-side with Islam. The constitution of the republic also embraced these principles. But more important and yet least noticed is the crucial fact that in its Article 9 these principles are, to use the language of the Constitution, “inseparable from each other,” and the “preservation and safeguarding” of these principles are “the duty of the government and the people.”
The goal of independence, as perceived at that time, was achieved, at least in part. A quarter century of American domination was terminated. For the first time in modern history, Iranian leaders achieved an unprecedented degree of control over their country’s destiny at home and in world affairs. Even the brutal invasion by Iraq did not make a dent in Iran’s determination to preserve its independence. On the contrary, the eight-year war burned deeply into the Iranian psyche the overriding importance of preserving the nation’s independence. But the opportunity for achieving political freedom was not at hand even after the war with Iraq. Reconstructing the nation’s crippled economy and military capability was accorded the highest priority for another eight years.
The historic opportunity for the nation to try to achieve political freedom, however, finally arrived. Twenty million young men and women elected you president of the Islamic Republic of Iran in a landmark election on May 23, 1997. Soon after your election I criticized, in print, Iran-watchers for overlooking the all-important synergy in your world view between reform plans for realizing Islamic democracy and justice on the one hand and relations with the rest of the world on the other. I conceptualized these ideas of yours as resembling the theory of “democratic peace” in the study of international relations in the West, but pointed out that in Iran’s case it amounts to what I call Islamic democratic peace.
The results are there for everyone to see. Despite all odds, the success of the first local elections in Iran’s modern history has paralleled an unprecedented degree of improvement in Iran’s relations with the rest of the world. Public-opinion polls in the United States show a favorable change in the attitude of the American people toward Iran. Public-opinion polls in Tehran, too, indicate a remarkable approval of and confidence in Iran’s proactive foreign policy in world politics conducted effectively by Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi.
Yet, this is not the time to indulge in self-congratulation. The upshot of my two previous propositions is that no matter how strategically important Iran may be in the world, it will not be able to play a major role in the international system unless and until the Iranian government and people agree to strike a reasonable balance in theory and especially in practice among independence, freedom and Islam, on the one hand, and between these constitutionally mandated guiding principles and the necessity of interacting constructively with the changing objective world, on the other. Hence, my third and final proposition is that the most fundamental challenge that Iran will face in the future is how to experiment effectively with this triple paradigm of Islamic democratic peace.
The Constitution has made independence, freedom and Islam interdependent. The real question, therefore, is how the government and the people of Iran will achieve consensus in both theory and practice about the boundary lines among these fundamental principles in the context of an inexorably shrinking objective world. Let us for a moment take each one of these three principles separately for the purpose of clarity.
Independence is not an absolute. It is a matter of the degree of dependence, especially in these dot.com times’ increasing demand for scientific knowledge and technical expertise. How independent, really, are the energy-dependent powerful industrial democracies? How independent are capital and know-how-dependent Third World countries? It took the West some 400 years of evolution to be where it is today, but the West will make the equivalent of 20,000 years of progress in science and technology in only one century, let alone in the new millennium. This staggering pace of change could be a boon or a bane to humanity. But the key point here is that such a pace of technological and telecommunications development is bound to produce a world of such a degree of interdependence that to fail to think hard about the vital implications for independence of such a pace of development could be tantamount to committing national suicide.
Nor can the enjoyment of any kind of freedom – cultural, political, economic or social – be absolute. Take cultural freedom, for example. If it means unyielding cultural relativism, then what will happen to the vital concept of the essential oneness of humankind as a manifestation of God’s creation? If, as Nelson Mandela says now and Sadi said centuries ago, the suffering of one person should inflict pain upon the others, then how could one culture close its eyes to the troubles of others? What will happen to the development of international human-rights law as well as humanitarian law? Should the world community ignore, for example, the indictments of people like Pinochet and Milosevic? Similar questions can be raised about political freedom. How could the demand for democracy in Iran overlook the fact that today about half of the world’s independent countries are considered to be democratic? That is twice the number when the Iranian Revolution erupted. The constitution spells out in great detail both individual and collective rights to freedom, as do the constitutions of many other countries where those very rights are grossly violated in practice.
Finally, let me mention the all-important interrelationship between Islam and the principles of independence and freedom. Insofar as independence is concerned, there is no doubt that in the Iranian Revolution, as in the American Revolution, religion played a significant role in mobilizing resistance to foreign domination. In both instances the religious leaders assured the people that their resistance to foreign domination was right in God’s sight and had His blessing. But the comparison stops there. The American constitution’s First Amendment Establishment Clause separated religion from liberty, while the Iranian Constitution fuses them.
But the interrelationship between Islam and democracy raises more fundamental questions. In your creative televised message to the American people, Mr. President, you drew parallels between the founding of the American and Islamic republics in order to suggest that in both cases religion was in harmony with “republicanism, democracy and freedom.” Yet, as you well know, the American constitution separated religion from government, while the Iranian constitution joined them.
In the spirit of your idea of dialogue among civilizations, therefore, I suggest that Iranians should have a deeper understanding of the separation doctrine in the American experience, for several reasons. First, the founding fathers of America, from Washington, Madison and Benjamin Franklin to Thomas Jefferson, undoubtedly recognized that religion is necessary for republican government because religion promotes virtue and morality. Second, some drafters of the American constitution believed that separation was intended to protect religion, some thought it was to protect government, while James Madison considered it necessary for protecting both. Third, if the metaphorical “wall of separation” between religion and liberty had ever been as absolute as some imagine, the American courts would not have tried to draw boundaries between the two, in case after case for some 200 years.
Another point that the Iranians will need to understand is that the separation doctrine does not mean that the American government is impervious to the importance of religion to government. There is a consensus emerging in America today about ways in which Christian organizations and government can work together. Nor does the doctrine of separation mean that the American people are Godless and immoral. In fact, the American people are one of the most God-fearing, church-going and honest people in the Western world. America is a nation that still stamps “In God We Trust” on its currency. As a matter of fact, at the dawn of the new millennium, the American concern with the evil consequences of blind globalization and the indiscriminate ideology of the free market has heightened ethical sensibilities. For example, Richard Tarnas, the philosopher and author of The Passion of the Western Mind tells us, “The great danger of our time is that the quest [for technology] has not been matched by a moral and psychological awareness of our limits.”
In this kind of thinking Americans can learn from Iranians. The Iranian-Islamic civilization fuses spiritual and worldly concerns. Annemarie Schimmel says, “Hafiz is perhaps the first poet in the Persian-speaking world who perfectly realized the unity of the mundane and the spiritual sphere.” I believe that we will need the acuteness of vision and the mental eye of Hafiz to dare to gaze into the new millennium to speculate about the role of Iran.
In closing, I would like to emphasize what the three fundamental conditions are under which Iran could play an even more significant role in the world in the future than at present. First, the government and people will need to realize that Iran’s strategic importance is not in and of itself sufficient to control the nation’s destiny at home and abroad. Second, the government and people will need to arrive at a reasonable degree of consensus on prioritizing the three principles of independence, freedom and Islam that underpin what I call the ideal of Islamic democratic peace. Third, and most important, the government and people will need to create appropriate structures and procedures in order to implement effectively these principles, for I believe there can be no durable political order without equitable justice under the law and no justice without liberty.