On Nov. 4, 1979, a group of college students and rioters overran the U.S. embassy in Iran and held 52 of its American inhabitants hostage all the way through January of 1981. The incident shocked Americans at the time – it seemed to come completely out of nowhere, with no motive or provocation.
Over the years, the American public has become more educated about our history of involvement in the region. We’ve learned that Iran elected its very first leader democratically in 1951, a man named Mohammad Mosaddegh. We’ve learned that the U.S. and U.K. didn’t like Mosaddegh, since his desire to nationalize the oil business in Iran would take away some of the lucrative economic exploitation of the region by western companies. We’ve learned that in 1953, the CIA and MI6 manufactured a coup d’etat that successfully ousted Mosaddegh and reinstated the hated Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. We’ve learned that Ayatollah Khomeini, who overthrew the Shah in a wave of theocratic Puritanism, gained a large part of his following by channeling the anti-western and anti-American sentiments that had been burning for decades; sentiments that were a direct result of the years of undermining and degrading foreign policy from nations abroad.
Suddenly, the embassy takeover seems less mysterious. In many ways, it mirrors in its complaints and reactions the backlash against another western super-power by an upstart nation just over 238 years ago. Our own ‘grand revolution,’ called “the American War of Independence” in other parts of the world, was the natural result of the same meddling and exploitive governmental policy we’ve seen in the past century in the Middle East.
Fast forward to the present – the Arab Spring is well under way. Demonstrations and protests have resulted in governmental overthrows in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, and protests in many others. Violence has, fortunately, not taken a primary role in much of this revolutionary movement, with two notable exceptions: Libya and Syria. While Libya’s violence was relatively short and painless, as far as violent conflicts go, the battle in Syria has raged on for over 19 months now. In the battles between the despotic Ba’ath government (the same party headed by Saddam Hussein in Iraq prior to Desert Storm II) and the anti-totalitarian revolutionaries, more than 34,000 Syrians have died.
Given the way things have been going in the region, the Syrian rebels’ victory is inevitable. More will die, and it will certainly be a bitter struggle, but the citizens of that old and proud nation have had enough, and the international support from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Kurdistan will only increase as the human rights violations committed by Bashar al-Assad mount over the coming months. His regime is in its death-throws.
This poses its own problem, however – the thing about democracy is that the people choose what the government looks like. When Egypt overthrew its own monarch and exchanged a kingship for democracy, it elected for its government a political party the U.S. doesn’t like very much: the Muslim Brotherhood. It hasn’t even been two years since the conflict began, and already conservative politicians are publicly voicing their fears and concerns about the Brotherhood, who were only recently removed from a list of terrorist organizations.
Have we learned nothing from Iran?
Among the military organizations fighting for the liberation of Syria is the infamous al-Qaeda. The extreme variants of Islam are very appealing and inspiring to many people at this point of time, and it is very possible that the Ba’ath party will be replaced with a democratically elected party even less favorable to the U.S. than the current dictatorship, in which case we can all be prepared for the political jargon of imperialism spouting from the lips of our politicians.
Regardless of whether we intervene on the part of the rebels or sit back in silence as the body count rises, we as Americans must remember what true democracy really stands for and respect the hard-won electoral decision of the upcoming Syrian democracy, whatever it may be. It would be an understatement to say they’ll have earned it, and it would be an insult to all involved parties to relive the self-righteous and arrogant mistakes of the last century.