The current moment of fear and anticipation in Iran is (or should be) another reminder of the unrealized potential of Iranian-U.S. relations. Americans' habitual view of Iran as a dangerous enemy distorts the underlying historical truth: the past fifty years of Iranian-U.S. relations were a tragedy that might have been avoided. If the current moment of potential passes unrealized, it will be all the more disappointing for the fact that the chance to restore Iranian-U.S. relations to what they should have been will have slipped away yet again.
Many Americans view Iranian agitation for democracy as a kind of anomaly. As a traditional Muslim society, so this view goes, Iran is a nation deeply unsuited to democratic culture. This is of course a complete misreading, both of recent Iranian history and the nature of Islamic societies more generally. In the decade after WWII, Iran had all of the ingredients of a modern success story akin to that of Japan or South Korea: a long history of stable state institutions, a relatively well-educated populace, a robust commercial economy, copious oil reserves, and a nascent industrial sector and middle class. Turbulent struggles between the monarch, Shah Reza Pahlavi, and the parliament had set Iran on the course toward constitutional democracy.
Iran's late twentieth century might have been a bright one except for the curse of geopolitics: its nascent democracy was sacrificed on the altar of the Cold War. In 1951 Mohammed Mosaddeq, an able, charismatic, and secular leader, was elected by popular majorities as prime minister. Though he enjoyed the confidence of much of Iran's populace, especially the intelligentsia and the middle class, his policies put him afoul of the United States. He opposed British exploitation of Iran's resources and undertook a nationalization of the petroleum industry. In foreign policy he attempted to preserve Iranian neutrality in the emerging strategic contest between the U.S. and Iran's northern neighbor, the Soviet Union. For these transgressions the American CIA helped engineer a monarchist coup that toppled Mosaddeq and drove him into exile, ushering in twenty-five years of absolutist rule by the Shah.
The shadow of Mosaddeq lays across the last fifty years of Iran's history. The choice that Iranian society made for theocracy in the revolution of 1979 was conditioned as much by the bitter disappointment of Iran's brief constitutional spring as the intrinsic prestige of the Shi'ite clerical establishment. The 1953 coup taught the Iranian people that their democratic aspirations, however deeply cherished, could be crushed by the strategic whims of the great powers. The appeal of the theocracy was its resilient capacity to survive the crushing pressures of the Cold War geopolitical vice. A government led by mullahs was a disappointment to some, a tragedy for others, but it had the redeeming virtue of being authentically Iranian.
Despite its theocratic basis, the post-1979 Iranian Republic has persistently incorporated a degree of participatory politics, no matter how restricted and anemic. What the current unrest demonstrates is that the democratic aspects of the Islamic Republic are as much a genuine expression of the political impulses of the Iranian people as the exalted position of Ayatollah Khamenei, perhaps more so. The choice for theocracy never entailed a wholesale abandonment of democratic aspirations: the Iranian people have tolerated the controls placed by theocrats on the electoral process on the implicit understanding that the loss of democratic sovereignty was a fair trade off against the anti-colonial autonomy afforded by clerical rule. The most recent interference by the mullahs, however, in which they seem to have simply discarded the choice of the voters even after rigging the ground rules to induce the outcome they desired, has proved a case of overreach.
Beyond this, the global setting that helped nurture the Iranian Republic's social contract has changed. The Soviet Union is gone, and in its place Iran is now bordered by independent Inner Asian republics. The United States, the nation that overthrew Mohammed Mosaddeq, has elected a man named Barack Hussein Obama who holds out hope of a new orientation in U.S. foreign policy. Both threats that helped redeem the excesses and disappointments of the theocracy have thus somewhat ameliorated, making the theocrats' meddling with the longstanding democratic aspirations of the Iranian people less tolerable.
Though the current violence in Iran may ultimately bring only sorrow, it also marks a moment of potentially hopeful change. We may be witnessing the turn of Iran from its Cold War tragedy back toward the positive course that should have been, and if so we should be prepared to take advantage of this opportunity. In order to do so, America should face this moment mindful of the role we played in forestalling Iran's progressive dreams. If we insist on viewing Iranians through the prism of our own biases, as caricatures of "backward Muslims" or "crazed terrorists," the chance for improving Iranian-U.S. relations will be lost. Rather, we should remain open to the Iran that has always been possible, and which has been circumvented as much by our own transgressions as any inherent weaknesses of Iranian culture or society: an important ally and a force for progress in the Middle East and the world at large.