- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 24, 2005

The hard-line ayatollahs ruling Iran reacted enthusiastically to the election results in neighboring Iraq. “Certainly it is promotion of democracy, and in that respect we welcome that,” said Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi.

The ayatollahs’ fervent calls for democratic elections in Iraq, while denying the very same choice to their own people, is the latest irony in the convoluted labyrinth of Middle Eastern politics.

The political calculation behind the Iranian leaders’ Orwellian doublespeak is that they see elections in Iraq as an opportunity to extend their influence in the key battleground for the future of the Middle East that Iraq has become. In his political will, Ayatollah Khomeini urged his successors to continue their efforts to bring about an Islamic revolution in Iraq, emphasizing that “the road to Jerusalem passes through Karbala.” Tehran diverted massive resources to ensure the victory of its proteges in Iraq. Thousands of Shi’ite clerics were dispatched from Iranian seminaries to southern Iraq. Iranian agents offered lavish sums to buy influence among Shi’ite tribal leaders, and Tehran sought to dominate the airwaves through dozens of Arab-language radio and television stations beaming Islamist propaganda into Iraq.

In the process, however, the ayatollahs may have committed one of their biggest blunders. They failed to realize that “it’s democracy, stupid.” If freedom-loving Iraqis overcome the odds to cement their new-found democracy in the face of serious threats from terrorists, Islamic extremists and meddling neighbors, Iran’s theocratic regime will face a mortal peril: Democracy is, after all, contagious.

The Iranian leadership is aware of the risky game it is playing in Iraq, and Tehran’s ayatollahs are determined to derail the democratic process in Iraq through a two-track policy. Track one is to foment violence by supporting a wide range of terrorist groups operating in Iraq. Senior Iraqi ministers have publicly described Iran as a major sponsor of terrorism in Iraq. The Associated Press reported from Baghdad last month that the captured leader of Mohammed’s Army, a Sunni group involved in beheadings and other bloody attacks, told Iraqi authorities that Iran provided money, weapons and “car bombs” for his group.

Track two is to hijack the political process in Iraq through Iran’s proxies. There are key figures on the winning Shi’ite slate whose long-standing loyalty to the ruling clerics in Iran causes profound concern among secular and democratic Iraqi politicians. Echoing such concerns, the spokesman for outgoing Prime Minister Iyad Allawi warned that Iraqi leaders “must be loyal to Iraq and not another country.” The international community has too much at stake in Iraq to allow Iran’s clerical leaders to quash the fledgling Mesopotamian democracy. This calls for a firm and coherent trans-Atlantic policy, but here is a first step we must take: Throw the gauntlet to the Iranian theocracy to hold free and fair elections in Iran, just as they preached for Iraq.

The ayatollahs, of course, furiously reject any hint at the need for democracy in Iran. When President Bush told the Iranian people in his State of the Union speech, “As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you,” the reaction from Tehran was fast and furious.

“America is one of the major heads of the seven-headed dragon of arrogance,” the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei blustered. “Zionist and non-Zionist capitalists who constitute the brain of this dragon have installed the incumbent U.S. president to further their interests. Bush is the fifth American president who intends to uproot the Iranian nation and the Islamic Republic, but he will be able to do so to the extent that Carter, Reagan, Bush the father and Clinton did.”

Ayatollah Khamenei has every reason to react viscerally to any suggestion of democratic change in Iran. He occupies an unelected office that towers above the three branches of power. Last year, his cronies in the watchdog Guardian Council arbitrarily “disqualified” more than 2,000 candidates in the run-up to the parliamentary elections, leaving the field clear for hard-liners to occupy the lion’s share of seats in the new parliament.

Iranians will vote for a new president on June 17. As things stand, the ayatollahs are not worried about the election: A rigorous vetting system will ensure that all but candidates deemed “loyal to the supreme leader” will be removed from the electoral slate. No matter who replaces lame-duck President Mohammed Khatami, the hard-line clerics do not see a threat to their rule.

All this could change if the international community pressed Tehran to hold free presidential elections with U.N. observers monitoring the process. As in Iraq, where the Iranian leadership insisted on “free elections without manipulation,” all candidates must be allowed to participate without any fear of intimidation or fraud.

One such candidate could be Maryam Rajavi, a charismatic opposition leader who has a large following, particularly among Iran’s oppressed youth and women. When I invited her to address members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Mrs. Rajavi rejected both the engagement of Iran’s clerical regime and a war to topple the ayatollahs. Instead, she offered a third option: change brought about by the Iranian people, the vast majority of whom seek an end to religious tyranny.

The United States went to war in Iraq with the goal of liberating the Iraqi people from the throes of a brutal dictator. President Bush has also spoken eloquently about the Iranian people’s right to freedom. Preventing Tehran’s subversion of Iraqi democracy and encouraging the Iranian people to liberate themselves could result in two democracies in the most sensitive region of the world.

Failure to act, however, could culminate in Islamic radicals ruling Iran and Iraq, with catastrophic consequences for the free world. If the West gets its act together, this could be a long, hot summer for Iran’sruling ayatollahs.

Alejo Vidal-Quadras Roca is first vice president of the European Parliament.

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