Go back to 1978 if you will. Jimmy Carter is President of the United States, and Reza Shah’s government in Iran is tenuous. A liberal democratic minority exists, but their success is doubtful in the event of a revolution. The most viable contender for succession is Ayatollah Khomeini, who we now know became as grave an enemy to human rights as Reza Shah himself. Carter’s position was to pressure the Shah on human rights while declaring theirs a "close personal friendship." Was this the right decision? What should Carter have done? These were the questions posed in our recent Comparative Politics class, and the answers given were frightening.
While some of my classmates suggested supporting Khomeini, the majority advised supporting the Shah. Yes, he may violate a fundamental human right here or there, but he likes us! Besides, our national security is at stake. With the threat of a Communist takeover, we cannot possibly let the revolution take its course. The Communists will violate human rights! The consensus believed that the Shah’s crimes should be tolerated because the US could work with him to develop a liberal government. To ensure his continuation in office, however, the US would have to support the Shah’s oppressive brutality in the meantime.
Admittedly, I had no grand scheme of my own, but it frightened me to hear that we had learned so little after the events of September 11th. The attacks of 9/11 were not the work of a particular government. The 19 hijackers were radical dissidents who hated US imperialism. I am not suggesting that they were correct in their ideology, but were they wrong in their accusation of US imperialism? Are the regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia worthy of our support? Likewise, was the Shah worthy of our support? In the latter case, the answer has to be a resounding, "No." The Iranian Revolution occurred for a reason. Iranians lived in poverty while their GDP more than quadrupled between 1959 and 1976 for a reason—the Shah was a tyrant. Accordingly, his cooperation with the US should have meant very little.
Nonetheless, my classmates, remembering how Ayatollah Khomeini would later call the US, "the Great Satan," appreciated the cordial Iran-US relations. A recurring argument was that the Shah’s government "liked" us. Great! Ninety-eight point two percent of Iranians who voted in 1980 opposed the Shah’s government.
Popular support apparently means very little when fighting the Soviets, however. "At that time, we had to worry about Iran falling under Communism," a colleague chimed in. Point taken, I am unsure how Communism would have been more evil than the Shah. Was American influence helping the Iranian people any more than a Soviet influence might have? The principal concern seemed to be that the US, rather than the Soviet Union, was "in control" of Iran. We opposed the Shah’s policies, but at least we had influence. When, however, will we learn that we cannot be in control? Apparently, we missed the memo at 8:46 on September 11th. We cannot gain security by allowing leaders like the Shah to oppress their citizenry. We are only secure when people are free.
According to John Locke, we are born free and equal. In addition, we possess these things called fundamental rights. What’s so great about them is that they’re universal and inalienable. As a result, the Iranians could not have been "put down" because they had irresistible impulses to preserve themselves and pursue their happiness. Revolution could not have been prevented by oppression because oppression will not silence people; it will cause them to rise up. Therefore, supporting tyrannical regimes will not allow the US to establish liberal democracy. After being oppressed, the people aren’t ready for discourse; they’re poised for self-defense. Only when we acknowledge their fundamental rights can we expect to see positive results.
Therefore, Jimmy Carter was correct in asserting human rights as America’s first foreign policy consideration. My colleagues rightly believed that US security should be paramount, but without human rights, there is no security. When we violate human rights, the victims become a threat to us. So, what should Carter have done? No one can say definitively, but perhaps he should have relied on human nature to take its course. People will strive for freedom until they get it; they cannot help themselves.
As of late, natural law supporters have said that liberal democracy may be impossible in the Middle East. Middle Easterners may have to develop the peculiar habits of a democratic people. Accordingly, it may take time to establish democracy among a people used to oppression. Impossible, however, it is not. On the contrary, liberal democracy is inevitable. If we believe in Locke’s teachings, that all men are born free with a desire to rule themselves, then we must believe that the Middle East will reach liberal democracy. Either man is born with the impulse to rule himself, or he is not. The latter is very difficult to argue. Therefore, US policy has to be human rights first. It’s not only right; it’s our only hope for peace and security.
Emily Newton is a senior from Strasburg, Ohio, majoring in Political Science and Business Administration.