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Iran caught by America's preference for capitalism over democracy

I want to return to Iran because there’s a lot to be learned from our relationship. We treat the multi-power nuclear fuel agreement as a problem with Iran. But an important part of the problem has roots here and it’s to our benefit to straighten it out; it’s costly to have an antagonistic relationship with Iran particularly when it holds the petroleum card during Putin’s attempt to conquer Ukraine.

Peace Corps volunteers were level-headed about Iran. They saw sign of turmoil there years before the Revolution and the Peace Corps pulled out in 1976. Some volunteers stayed in other roles. We know some, including diplomats working in the American Embassy when it was overtaken in 1979. They spent the next year-and-a-half as hostages.

The US and Iran actually admired each other for centuries before the Iranian Revolution. Americans once thought of Iran as a civilized buffer against the Turks who had threatened Christian Europe. And Iran had embraced generations of refugees since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem long before the Christian era. Iranians thought the US could be an honest broker between neighboring Russia or, later, the Soviet Union, and the British. Perceiving Russia’s threat on its border, Iran had good reasons to work with us.

Those understandings broke down for domestic and international reasons. England wanted American help to control Iranian oil. In the early 50s, Iran had a parliamentary form of government with a Prime Minister who wanted to improve the lot of the lower economic classes, control Iranian oil, and stay on peaceful terms with its much larger neighbor to the north. My wife and I remember seeing the poor in Iran, some sleeping on carts they used during the day. But Prime Minister Mossadegh’s efforts to help Iran’s poor, while resisting British demands and trying to mollify its northern neighbor, played poorly in the US. America consistently favored capitalism over democracy and deposed the leaders of governments which tried to put limits on capitalism and distribute benefits to the populace. That was true when the Eisenhower Administration deposed elected leaders in Guatemala as well as in Iran. It was true when the Reagan Administration intervened in Central America, followed by brutal civil wars. Those problems still fester.

The Iranian Revolution hasn't worked out as well as some Iranians hoped, and there’ve been many problems since, but our two countries could look past the insults we inflicted on each other and find ways to have friendly relations. Having made mistakes in 1953 and 1979, we continue to treat each other as if nothing the other says can ever be right or good. That’s a costly mistake for everyone.

But more important, poor treatment of democracy in Iran and across the globe reflected domestic politics and is being replayed here as Republicans in power have increasingly preferred capitalism, capitalists, money and power over democracy at home. American Judges and legislators here have increasingly unleashed guns as well as corporate and financial power on the election process. The Court invents state and corporate rights, reverses the meaning of constitutional language in ways that favor its wealthy clients, and treats democracy as if it’s not part of the Constitution. Instead, the Supreme Court behaves like Iran’s Guardian council, choosing who may and may not vote, how voters can cast their ballots, how votes are counted, how and by whom campaigns are financed, in order to secure Republican victories, giving Bush the presidency in 2000 and allowing Republican state minorities to manipulate congressional delegations so they can win despite being substantially outvoted. Dress the so-called “justices” in turbans and beards.

It’s time to stop. And it’s time to have a level-headed relationship with Iran.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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