Bahai News - International mavericks: A comparative analysis

International mavericks: A comparative analysis of selected human rights and foreign policy issues in Iran and the United States

NTRODUCTION The question "Why do nations obey international law?"1 suggests a follow-up query: "Why do nations refuse to obey international law?" Starting down that path, a student of American law interested in international human rights might well ask: "Why does the United States, with an entire bureaucracy devoted to measuring other nations' protection of their citizens' human rights, not sign and ratify all international human rights treaties and join in the U.N.-sponsored multilateral efforts to enhance the protection of human rights around the world?" Stated more generally, the inquiry might be "Why do states resist international human rights law?" This study considers whether a comparison of two nations, the United States and Iran, that have resisted signing most international human rights treaties reveals common characteristics illuminating the general question here, or, failing that, whether such a comparison sheds useful light on the resistance of either nation studied.

Professor George M. Fredrickson, an historian who has published extensively on the subject of slavery and race relations in the United States and South Africa, describes methods of comparative historical analysis and refers to a study of two countries as a crossnational or bilateral comparison. Fredrickson notes the increasing use of "`comparative perspective' as a tool of analysis," by which an author "employs general knowledge of an external example or examples of a phenomenon to determine what is characteristic or distinctive about the manifestation of that phenomenon within a single society."2. This article may be characterized, using Fredrickson's terminology, as a study-from a comparative perspective- of factors underlying the United States' resistance to international human rights treaties using a cross-national comparison of Iran and the United States.

Comparative analysis here is applied on two levels. In addition to comparing Iran and the United States with each other, each nation is also compared to a group of its allies or neighbors to demonstrate the degree to which both nations stand apart from the international community and are unique within their own cultural or geographic neighborhoods. This maverick quality provides the historic strength, or arrogance, required for an ambitious nation to decline enthusiastic participation in the widely acclaimed, if not scrupulously observed, multilateral human rights regime in either truth or appearance. Intending to provide as much information on Iran as about the United States, there is no avoiding the conclusion that an American's analysis of Iran, broadly based entirely on English-language sources of the subject must be taken as less than authoritative.3

This study is organized, first, to quantify and describe how the United States and Iran have officially dealt with the principal international human rights treaties promulgated over the last several decades. The second and third sections place each nation in its historic and cultural context and briefly examine some of the important differences between the subjects and their neighbors and allies. Iran and the United States are directly compared to each other in the fourth section, discussing selected aspects of the foreign policies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and in the fifth section, reviewing domestic policies. The aspects, issues, and policies examined in these two sections were selected for their relevance to human rights treaties, as well as for their amenability to comparison. No attempt is made to evaluate the relative significance of the many issues and policies not selected. The sixth section highlights the similarities of the fundamentalist aspect of religion that has had a significant impact on domestic and foreign policy in both Iran and the United States over the last few decades. Finally, the concluding section offers some judgments as to the complex of factors operating in each country that block official acceptance of most international human rights treaties.

As is obvious from the structure of this study, it is based on an assumption that at least as to Iran and the United States, the reasons for resisting international human rights law-or for failing to sign or ratify a treaty-are not clear-cut. Human rights treaties are a recent and unique form of international agreement. They are multilateral instruments intended to embrace every nation, and require the establishment of new international regimes of monitoring, regulating, adjudication and reporting. Although multilateral regimes in other areas have ceased to be a rarity on the international landscape, a nation's commitment to a globally applicable treaty with significant bureaucratic encumbrances still presents issues of complexity beyond, for example, a treaty with neighbors regarding borders.

The most unusual aspect of the human rights treaties, however, is their subject matter: power dynamics within a nation. These treaties reach a nation's most sensitive issues of its own governance, drawing attention from portions of a nation's population and political structure where foreign policy concerns would not normally be highlighted. Wholehearted conformity with a human rights treaty actually commits a state to some degree of invasion of its sovereignty, to the possibility that purely domestic policies affecting only its own citizens may properly be the subject of some action by an international body potentially comprised of its enemies as well as its allies. Traditional foreign policy analysis is an inadequate vehicle for examining a nation's actions or inaction in this area.

A decision to advocate the ratification of any treaty in the United States is, if nothing else, a procedurally complicated one. It involves the motives and calculations of a popularly elected president and a number of appointed, Senate-approved officials responsible for various pieces of the puzzle of the "national interest." The fact that the treaty must then be ratified by a super-majority of the Senate leads to more political complexity on the domestic level.4 Thus, though a failure to press for ratification may not be a "decision" in practical terms, inaction may reflect many factors of domestic and international origin, with some of them weighing more heavily with one branch of government, or individual within a branch, than another. This study has not attempted to analyze these factors treaty by treaty for the United States, nor has any attempt been made to identify the decision-making apparatus that would be involved on the Iranian side. No attempt has been made to measure the relative degree of compliance with or violation of international human rights standards within the two nations. This study is aimed at a more general question and attempts to provide more general answers, based on historic and current information concerning both the international and domestic parts of the equation. Why does the United States or Iran prefer resistance to full participation in the multilateral human rights regime? What domestic interests in each country would presumably be impacted by full participation?

Stated most broadly, the conclusions of this study are:

(1) An influential portion of the populations of both countries strongly favors a foreign policy tradition of unilateralism;

(2) Such groups or portions that would arguably benefit by the imposition of international human rights standards are among those who have been historically disadvantaged or excluded from Iranian and U.S. politics, and remain the groups with the least influence over national policies in both nations;

(3) Modern culture and ideology in both Iran and the United States have been imprinted by rupture or schism-in Iran's case, by the sixteenth century imposition of Shiite Islam on a people who were already historically distinctive, and in the case of the United States, by the revolution that allowed the dissident Protestant colonies to found a country without a history. The primary place of the rupture in the zeitgeist of the two nations has been reaffirmed in recent years, by the Islamic Revolution in Iran, establishing the world's only Shiite Muslim theocracy, and by the Cold War victory of American democracy and capitalism over Communism occurring as most of Europe is uniting under a democratic social welfare identity eschewed by the United States. Iran and the United States are persistently unconventional, maverick states in their separate worlds, each one absolutely convinced of the superiority of its law and ideology, and thus uniquely resistant to, or immune from, the kind of peer pressure that would be necessary to overcome their unilateralist tendencies.


Professor Seymour Martin Lipset's comparison of Japan and the United States in an edited volume illustrating strategies of comparative research in sociology influenced the choice to compare Iran with the United States.5 Lipset's study compares factors relating to the development and the nature of the capitalistic systems in each country, choosing to compare Japan and the United States because they were "the two developed nations which are most different from each other."6 In sociological terms, Japan and the United States were "outliers."7 The sense that Iran and the United States are "outliers" in the international community, coupled with the contrary notion that Iran and the United States actually share at least two important factors-a powerful religious fundamentalist movement and a reverence for a text that many believe to be inconsistent with international human rights standards-inspired the choice for this study.

However, unlike Lipset's analysis of Japan and the United States, where the subjects were members of a relatively small group of "developed nations," and therefore similarly situated in many important respects, Iran and the United States share no membership in any recognized sub-group of nations. This distinction led to the construction, for purposes of this study, of two "peer groups" of nations, one for each of the subjects of the mainxi study. The relative position of each subject within its own peer group aids in the initial evaluation of the degree to which Iran and the United States do, in fact, "resist" international human rights law.8 In addition, in a subsequent discussion of the degree to which the two nations are outliers or mavericks in the international community, the availability of reference standards smaller than the membership of the United Nations seemed advisable. Therefore, the data referred to in this discussion of "Parallels in Resistance" is based on two groups of nations, one including Iran and other Islamic countries, and a second including the United States and other Western and/or putative "super-power" states. Similarly, the discussion in Sections II and III below looks at the positions of Iran and the United States in groups of "peer" nations to demonstrate that each of the subjects is, in fact, unique or exceptional in a way seeming to predispose it to charting a path clearly distinct from the one followed by its "peers."

A. Treaty Ratications

The number of multilateral agreements protective of human rights ratified by Iran and the United States is one measure of the degree of resistance to international human rights law. There are many such agreements, some dating back to the League of Nations, including the Geneva Conventions concerning warfare. This study measures resistance by comparing the number of treaties ratified by Iran and the United States out of a total of thirtyfour instruments open to every state.9 Of that total, Iran has ratified eleven and ranks 16th in its peer group of 22 nations in the number of instruments ratified.10 The United States has also ratified eleven treaties and is in last place (tied with China) in its own peer group.11

Human rights treaties have been drafted and adopted by the U.N. over many years, and during those years, Iran experienced a revolution and a complete change in the form of its government; the United States was affected by numerous changes in the executive and legislative branches as well as the tension and subsequent demise of the Cold War. Of the human rights treaties ratified by Iran, only three of those ratifications have occurred since their Revolution in 1979: the Conventions on Suppression of the Crime of Apartheid (1985) and Apartheid in Sports (1988),12 and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1994).13 The United States has ratified five human rights treaties, out of its total of eleven, since 1980: the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide (1988),14 the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1992),15 the Convention against the Taking of Hostages,16 and the conventions relating to racial discrimination and torture (1994).17

Six recently adopted global, multilateral agreements, three relating to human rights (discrimination against women, torture, and the rights of the child),18 one on the Law of the Sea19 and two others relating to weapons bans (chemical weapons and land mines),20 are reviewed as to the years of ratification by all fortyfour of the countries making up the two peer groups.21 Of these six "young" treaties, Syria is the only nation studied that has ratified only one. Forty of the nations in the two peer groups have ratified three or more of the treaties. Three of the forty-four nations have ratified only two of the six recently adopted treaties: the United States, Iran, and Afghanistan. Except for Somalia, which has no internationally recognized government, the United States is the only nation in the world that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child that was adopted by the U.N. in 1989.22

Data related to the death penalty are reviewed separately, and Iran is not unusual among its peers in being a "retentionist" state (one that retains the death penalty), but in 1996 and 1997, it reported more executions than any of its peers.23 Iraq is believed to have executed "hundreds" of prisoners, and several other countries not reporting any are believed to have carried out a number of executions.24 In the United States' peer group, it is the only Western nation retaining the death penalty, and China, Japan and Russia are the only countries in this group besides the United States that reportedly carried out any executions in 1996.25 Human Rights Watch reports that the United States is one of only six countries in the world that execute people for convictions based on acts committed before the age of eighteen. Iran is also one of the six.26

B. Treaty Reservations

A number of Muslim nations ratified human rights treaties attaching reservations.27 Many of these reservations specify that the country considers Islamic law (shari'a) dominant over treaty rights where there is any conflict.28 The reservation Iran filed with its ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1994 is an example of one type of reservation submitted by Muslim countries: "Iran reserves the right not to apply any provisions or articles of the Convention that are incompatible with Islamic Laws."29 Iran's constitution, drafted by the conservative clerical faction under the control of the Ayatollah Khomeini after the Revolution, clearly establishes "Islamic criteria" as the basis for law in Iran:

All civil, penal, financial, economic, administrative, cultural, military, political laws and other laws or regulations, must be based on Islamic criteria. This principle applies absolutely and generally to all articles of the Constitution as well as to all other laws and regulations, and the Islamic Jurists of the Council of Guardians are judges in this matter.30

Iran's government is thus unique, not in the elevation of Islamic law so much as in the elevation of a clerical body3l with not only the power to negate laws promulgated through normal legislative channels, but also limitless power to invalidate articles of their constitution.32 In a number of specific articles, the Iranian constitution makes clear that the scope of rights granted by the document, e.g. the "right to choose any occupation," is limited by Islamic principles, as in the clause modifying the right to choose any occupation, "if it is not contrary to Islam."33 The Convention on the Rights of the Child is intended to insure that a child enjoys a number of rights, including, for example, the freedom to choose a religion. Since Islam has traditionally not allowed conversion away from the Muslim faith,34 Iran is apparently "reserving" its right, under Islamic Law, to limit a child's freedom of religion?35 in spite of the terms of the treaty.36

The U.S. Senate approved the ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1992, more than twenty-five years after its adoption by the U.N. and subject to five reservations.37 Three reservations submitted by the United States refer to the U.S. Constitution to indicate that treaty standards must give way to U.S. Constitutional standards where there is a conflict, the strong conviction of senators and other witnesses testifying before the Senate against the ratification of human rights treaties.38 Since Supreme Court rulings support this view, there does not appear to be a need for the reservation, except for the narrow case, as referred to in the first reservation attached to the ICCPR, in which a treaty obligation (for example, to prohibit war propaganda) could not be met because of the countervailing constitutional norms expressed in First Amendment cases.39

The second reservation attached to the ICCPR presents a different issue: "the United States reserves the right, subject to its Constitutional constraints, to impose capital punishment on any person (other than a pregnant woman) duly convicted under existing or future laws permitting the imposition of capital punishment, including such punishment for crimes committed by persons below eighteen years of age."40 In other words, since the Supreme Court has not found that state imposition of the death penalty on juvenile offenders is repugnant to the U.S. Constitution, the reservation implies that a law barring execution of juveniles would be violative of constitutional standards.41

There is no validity to such a claim, suggesting obfuscation or the hope that a reference to the Constitution, a "sacred symbol,"42 dignifies the U.S. position that motivated drafting the reservation. The federal death penalty for drug-related offenses, established by statute in the United States in 1988 and expanded by Congress in 1994, has a minimum requirement that the offender be 18 at the time of the offense.43 Twelve states do not allow the death penalty; of the thirty-eight that do, sixteen use 18 as the minimum age at the time of the crime for death-penalty eligibility.44 In 1988 the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits execution of criminals fifteen and younger at the time of their crime.45 In 1989 the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment does not always prohibit the death penalty for crimes committed at age sixteen or seventeen.46

Similar reservations have been adopted or proposed in bringing other human rights treaties before the Senate, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, (CEDAW).47 With respect to CEDAW, Professor Ann Elizabeth Mayer has compared the rationales of Muslim countries, the Vatican and the United States, calling them "the new world hypocrisy."48 U.S. reservations to human rights treaties based on the Constitution may have a great deal in common with Iran's reservation based on Islamic law, as Mayer suggests they are both offered "to give respectability to policies of upholding domestic laws that are discriminatory or otherwise deficient by international human rights standards by associating these policies with sacred laws."49


A. Iran's Persian Identity

By strictly objective measures, Iran is different: among Islamic nations, it is uniquely Shiite rather than Sunni.50 The division of the Muslim world between Sunni and Shiite believers began after Muhammad's death and the first succession dispute, with a minority of the community believing that Ali, Muhammad's son-in-law, should have succeeded the Prophet, and then refining and expanding that argument to the doctrine of Imamate (divinely inspired leadership) .51 Twelver Shi'ism52 was not an extremist or militant group during the medieval period, having reached an accommodation with non-Shiite rulers. However, the Twelver Shi'a did not grant the ruling political powers any religious authority, in contrast to the Sunni Muslims, but continued to vest religious authority exclusively in the ulama, their learned clerics.53 The majority of Iranian Muslims had always been identified with the Sunni branch,54 and indeed the Iranian form of formal religious education, the madrasa, was exported from Iran throughout the Arab world and to Anatolia and India in the eleventh and twelfth centuries and is credited with the scholarly consensus achieved by the Sunni Muslims throughout their vast territories after that time.55

Among its Middle Eastern neighbors it is ethnically and linguistically unique, since Iranians are neither Semitic nor Turkic, but of Aryan origin, and their Persian language is similarly neither Turkic nor Arabic, but derived from the same Indo-Iranian parent language as Hindi and Bengali.56 Historically, Iran is truly one of a kind: it was the locus of one of the world's first great empires, founded by Cyrus in 550 BC and the home of one of the world's first great monotheistic religions, Zoroastrianism,57 centuries before Alexander the Great's conquest of Iran in 331 BC. A pattern, illustrated by the triumphant Persian empire humbled by outsider conquest-a pattern of Imperial glory, followed by decay and defeat, succeeded by new triumphs-is the leitmotif of the saga of Iran.

Modern Iran

During the nineteenth century and the reign of the Qajar dynasty, Iran's Shiite ulama (learned clerics) operated as a privileged class of administrators with responsibility and authority over courts, vaqf (charitable endowment) property, religious taxes, and the educational system. They were also the religious and traditional cultural leaders of society, and as a group were among the wealthiest in Iran.58 The Iranian state, like most others in the Middle East at that time, was poorly organized, barely centralized and beleaguered by European military and commercial intrusions. The clergy for the most part maintained amicable and cooperative relations with the state powers, since its interests often coincided with those of the state.59 However, the ulama protected their autonomy and resisted state actions jeopardizing their prerogatives. This often put them in the position of opposing Western economic and ideological influences, particularly the interference and domination by the British and Russians, the Western powers competing for trade and influence in Iran.60 The ulama's oppositional role was often undertaken in alliance with urban commercial interests, or "bazaaris."61 This alliance between the mosque and the bazaar achieved a spectacular success when it opposed the Tobacco Concession in 1891-1892.62 After that point, the ulama were a "central force, which could be allied with, manipulated, combated, but never ignored."63

Discontent with the Qajar government grew after this point, and as Iran's financial and economic position deteriorated in the first years of the twentieth century, revolutionary plans were made, drawing strength from the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 and the Russian Revolution of 1905.64 In 1906 a constitution was drafted based on the Belgian model, seeking to reconcile objectives of the Islamic clergy and Western-influenced secular reformers, including limitations on the power of the monarchy like the establishment of a consultative assembly and the declaration of Shi'ism as the official state religion.65 Several years of unrest followed the adoption of the Constitution until 1911, marking the end of the period known as the Constitutional Revolution. The constitution (mashruteh) remained in place until 1979, although ,more often honored in the breach than the observance," and its legacy included the establishment of the Majles (representative assembly), viewed "as a guardian against certain foreign encroachments."66 Over the short term, however, the unrest of the revolutionary period resulted in additional violations of Iran's sovereignty by Britain and Russia, and "contributed to the growth of the intense Iranian resentment against foreign intervention."67

The privileged position of the Iranian clergy was seriously eroded by the subsequent rise to power of Reza Shah, whose accession to the throne occurred with the prior approval-if not the actual complicity- of the British.68 Beginning in 1926, his strengthening and centralization of the state ended the clergy's monopoly over the education system, the courts, tax collection and social services. In 1936 the state attacked the traditional core of Islamic authority by ordering women to be unveiled in public.69 Hostile public reaction from the clergy was stifled until after the abdication of Reza Shah in 1941; it then appeared in the form of a book by a young cleric, Ruhollah Khomeini. He argued that the state's authority could not be legitimized in the absence of careful supervision by the Islamic clergy or experts, and that "this shameful unveiling [of women]... [is a] gross violation of the laws of God and His Prophet."70 Khomeini's feelings about foreign influences were also clear in this early book: authority to guide the state, he argued, can only be conferred "upon someone who does not violate God's laws-these being founded on reason and justice-and who accepts the formal law of the country to be the divine laws of heaven, and not European laws or worse."71

Khomeini's book attracted scant notice when it was published, but during the post-war period, Khomeini developed a loyal following, many of them his students at the theological school in Qum. During the same time, the United States succeeded Britain as the dominant foreign power in Iran. In 1953 a CIA-sponsored coup returned Reza Shah's son, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, to the Peacock Throne.72 More importantly, the United States' actions restored autocratic power to the monarchy by engineering the overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, a popular nationalist reformer, and an elected leader who presided over modern Iran's singular and brief period of democratic government.73

The United States' preference for the Shah's authoritarian rule to a messy, fledgling democratic reformist regime was undoubtedly motivated in part by Mossadeq's intention to nationalize Iran's oil industry to the disadvantage of U.S. and British interests.74 Another factor influencing the United States' decision to back the coup was American hysteria over Communist gains in the third world: a well- organized communist movement did exist in the Iranian Tudeh party, and the mass media made no distinction between that and Mossadeq's nationalist movement.75 Even among the Shiite clergy, the democratic disorder of Mossadeq's administration and the disciplined strength of the Tudeh party caused the most prominent and senior of the ulama to throw their support to the Shah as the coup unfolded.76

Khomeini, part of the next generation of clerics, emerged in the public eye a decade later. The level of his hostility toward the monarchy and its foreign influences was undiminished from his early outspoken denunciation of Reza Shah, the father of Mohammed Reza Shah.77 A 1962 reform measure promoted by the Shah, the Local Council Elections Bill, ignited a vigorous protest movement led by Khomeini eventually resulting in riots and repressive counter-measures. These actions included Khomeini's arrest and deportation, and ultimately, reinforced his fame and uncontested leadership position in the revolutionary movements of the 1970s.78 The issues inflaming Khomeini and his supporters were the proposed enfranchisement of women and the substitution of "holy book" for "holy Qur'an" in the oath of office. The protesters argued that voting rights for women were a violation of sharia and would destroy family life and spread prostitution;79 and that the elimination of the Qur'an as part of the mandatory oath would endanger Iran's very independence, as Jews and the Baha'i would be allowed to vote and hold office and thus "drive [Iran] to complete bankruptcy."80 Khomeini's rise to leadership of the Shiite ulama began with his protest of the 1936 mandatory unveiling of women by Reza Shah-whose reign was supported and influenced by the British8l- and soared in 1963, with his protest of women's enfranchisement proposed by Mohammad Reza Shah-whose reign was even more openly underwritten by the United States.

C. Revolutionary Iran

Khomeini's protest of capitulations to the United States82 finally precipitated his deportation to Turkey in 1964, and from there he went to Iraq, in the manner of the eighteenth century ulama forced to flee from hostile Sunni Iranian rulers.83 In Iraq Khomeini preached, taught and wrote, while refining his radical theories of theocratic government, or Velayat Faqih (Mandate of the Jurist).84 His Islamic movement, later referred to in the West as "fundamentalist,"85 gathered strength through the 1970s as the corrupt and repressive Pahlavi regime slowly hollowed out, and Khomeini and his allies assumed power in Iran in 1979.86 He overthrew a Westsupported monarch, and the imposition of a Shiite theocracy was a welcome jolt to the Islamic world,87 especially in Arab states dominated by Westernizing autocrats. It was hardly a logical development of Islamic or even Shiite theory, however, nor a reflection of universal Islamic sentiment.88 In fact, it has proven to be unique and stands as another example of Iranian singularity.

There have long been very important differences even between the Shi'ism of Iran and Iraq, in spite of the centuries of close alsociation of the two communities. Iraqi Shiites are more recent converts to Shi'ism than Iranians.89 The religious faith developed in very different organizational forms in the two countries, and as a result, Iraqi ulama did not emerge as powerful players in twentieth century politics.90 The Iraqi Shiites comprise "a society whose strong Arab tribal value system was encapsulated by Shiite religion, not permeated by it."91 Professor Albert Hourani, in his History of the Arab Peoples, affirms that the Iranian Revolution should not be expected to be duplicated in other countries, and he highlights the uniquely Iranian religious leadership, the independent and well respected Mama who "had always acted as the spokes[men] of the collective consciousness."92 The situation was quite different in the Arab countries where the Ottoman legacy was a less independent ulama "compromised" by their relations with the government.93

D. Iran, Unique in the Middle East

Modern Iran's experience prior to its Revolution was similar in many ways to the experience of other Middle Eastern countries with respect to the problems presented by the technological and commercial superiority of Western powers and their political interference, and in some cases, subjugation of Muslim nations. By the end of the nineteenth century, nearly all of the major Islamic states from Asia to Africa were subject to some form of European control.94 However, the singularity of Iran's position among its neighbors and its response to European dominance is clear. Iran was never part of the Ottoman Empire, the organic representation of the Muslim world, and it was never colonized by a European power.95 Interference from Europe occurred later in Iran than in Turkey and Egypt. Iran had much less contact with the West altogether than did the Middle Eastern countries on the Mediterranean.96 Fewer European residents than Egypt and Turkey meant, among other things, that the Iranian bazaar structure remained intact.97 Thus, Iranian merchants were almost uniformly Muslims, and more likely to be allied with the clerical establishment than the foreigners making up a substantial part of Egypt's and Turkey's merchant classes.98

The Islamic establishment in Egypt was divided between Sufi brotherhoods, the Sunni ulama and the Muslim Brothers, and these divisions parallelled class lines, while Iran's Shiite clerics were organized hierarchically and presided over a uniform theology.99 The Turkish Sunni clergy also occupied an Islamic monopoly position, but it was controlled by the state. The merchant class did not align itself with the religious establishment; it reflected the religious and ethnic diversity that had already caused so many Turkish residents to be identified with foreign nations.100 In fact, the uniquely monolithic nature of Iranian Shi'ism and its clerical establishment was a factor, along with the country's arrid terrain and scattered population, inhibiting the centralization of the state by the Qajar Shahs in the nineteenth century.101 Compared to developments in other middle eastern countries, a disadvantage of the delay in modernization and centralization in Iran was that the efforts, when finally seriously undertaken in the twentieth century, were often brutal and occurred very rapidly, causing intense dislocation and alienation among the lower classes.102

Underscoring all other differences between modern Iran and modern Turkey is the significant fact that the Turkish state was built on the dissolution of the Ottoman Caliphate and characterized itself as rigorously secular. Although the Pahlavi Shahs were admirers and imitators of the modern Turkish leaders, and Mohammed Reza Shah emphasized the pre-Islamic Persian heritage of the country while undermining the power of the Shiite ulama, they never clearly repudiated the state's identity as Islamic.103 The Shahs did not follow Syria's example and seek to placate the powerful ulama.104 Their reforms limited the scope of Mama authority, and when Reza Shah glorified Iran's pre-Islamic kingship, inspired the fierce opposition of the clergy, while failing to break with them decisively. 105

The decline of the Ottoman Empire and the increasing ascendancy of Europe in the nineteenth century inspired modernization efforts in Egypt and Turkey in particular, but also provoked the rise of defensive intellectual theories about the true superiority of Islam, "the East," and finally the Arabs. These movements, termed "Ottomanist" or "Arabist" depending on the cultural and linguistic bias of the proponents, focused on how the East could catch up with the West, proving that the East was in fact superior. Both movements "dwelt on the perfect system, uncorrupted original Islam,"106 and both emphasized Iran's singularity, since it was embraced by neither.107 Iran was not Ottoman, Turkish, Arab, or Sunni.

Iran's singular position as the only non-Arab and non-Sunni Muslim state in the Middle East must have cushioned the psychological and symbolic blow caused by the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. Persian pride had sustained its unique national culture through many cycles of imperial triumph and defeat. Hourani concedes that "in the eastern [Persian] part of the Islamic world, the coming of Islam did not submerge consciousness of the past to the same extent as it did in the West ... Among Muslim countries, Iran was virtually unique in having a strong, conscious link with its pre-Islamic past."108

Twentieth-century Iran, it has been argued, is unique in the Muslim, Hindu and Western worlds in the number and depth of its revolutionary movements.109 Professor Nikki Keddie identifies the tobacco rebellion of 1890-1892, the constitutional "upheaval" of 1905-1911, rebellions in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan after World War II, the oil nationalization movement under Mosaddeq from 1951-1953, and the anti-government demonstrations of the early 1960s in which Khomeini played a central role, and of course, the Islamic Revolution of the late 1970s, as efforts to throw off foreign control and to build an independent state.110 Keddie's analysis includes a series of comparisons: the anti-imperialist and anti-foreign component of Iranian revolutionary movements was stronger and resulted in more rebellions than in any other Middle Eastern country "with the possible exception of Afghanistan," and Iranians have been more resistant to foreign domination than have "most other peoples;" Shiite Islam has been more resistant to foreign influences than Sunni Islam; both branches of Islam have been more resistant to Westernization than the religions of non-Muslim Asia and Africa; and therefore, Iranian Shiite Islam "may be the most resistant of all non-European religions to European culture."111 Finally, Keddie notes that the Iranians' belief that their own government was responsible for "Western depredations" is a notion common to many Islamic militant groups, but that it garnered wider and more intense support in Iran.112


A. Protestant British Colonies

The notion of the United States as exceptional is almost as old as the arrival of the Europeans on the North American continent in the fifteenth century. European explorers found new routes to points in Africa and Asia, but they "had long known about both continents and had had several centuries to assimilate the differences between their own cultures and those of the exotic East."113 The discovery of `America,' on the other hand, was the discovery of an unknown-and more astonishingly, unexpected-land mass, and Europeans were forced "to reconstruct the cosmography that had served them since antiquity."114 Added to the unparalleled novelty of the discovery, the discovered lands appeared to be sparsely inhabited by peoples of a seemingly primitive nature. The interpretation of these "facts" in the old world was not in dispute: America belonged to Europe in a sense that Asia and Africa, which had known ancient cultures pre-dating those of the `discoverers,' did not.115 American exceptionalism, however, usually refers more particularly to the uniqueness of the United States as it developed apart from the other New World colonies and from its European parent. At the outset, the nature of seventeenth century English colonization efforts differed significantly from the French and Iberian models, reflecting the sectarian ferment of post-Reformation England and the emerging capitalist values of a uniquely marketdriven state.

As to the first, religious, aspect of the organization of the English colonies in America, the most important difference between English colonists and their continental counterparts is the most obvious difference: England was becoming a Protestant state in the mid-sixteenth century and had severed all ties with the Roman Church. Seventeenth century English colonists were primarily Protestant, and the English colonies had almost no religious governance from England.116 Colonization by Spain, Portugal and France, in contrast, was a thoroughly Catholic affair, with Catholic clerics and officials among the colonists in positions of authority; these colonies were settled on behalf of the monarchs and the Church. "The Catholic Church was as firmly established in the [Spanish] colonies as in the mother country, and there was no trace of the religious freedom that became so common in the English colonies."117

The Catholic monarchs exercised tight control over their colonies, even carefully screening prospective emigrants, required to be natives of the European state.118 The Iberian and French colonies were governed from Europe, and there was almost no formation of local assemblies or legislatures in those colonies, as had made the English North American experience so nearly a self-governing enterprise.119 The English crown granted charters to private individuals or business entities to undertake colonization, and the crown asserted ownership of the new territories thus settled, but provided no capital for the initiation of the venture.120 This hands-off approach extended to the composition of the settler parties. There was no English-only rule in the English colonies, or in the social and political governance of the colonies once established.121 England's failure to take the state- centered approach tested successfully by the Catholic monarchs can be explained by the fact that England was late in the race to colonize; the available territories in the new world werei considered less valuable and less likely to result in handsome returns for the state.122 France and England were weak and distracted by internal disputes during the first century of the colonial era, the time when Spain discovered gold in its American possessions.123

By the time England's George III and Parliament began to assert more political control over (and to seek more substantial tax revenue from) the thirteen Atlantic Seaboard colonies,124 the resulting conflict sparked a revolution. In 1776 the English colonies were already exceptional in the New World in terms of economic opportunity, religious freedom, the mixture of nationalities in the population, and the number, maturity and effectiveness of their political institutions.125 "[T]hey had behind them a century and a half of political experience in which they had developed representative legislatures, had become accustomed to having a widespread voting population, and on the whole had accepted the idea that they must abide by the will of the majority of voters and of the majority of the men elected to the legislatures, even when they bitterly objected to the results."126

The factors noted above are traditionally cited in any discussion of American exceptionalism, although some historians have challenged the notion that the colonies at independence were substantially different from England. 127 A recent comparative study of Britain and America places greater emphasis on religious factors than in other comparisons of the parent and offspring of the Anglo-American culture.128 According to this recent analysis, the fact that the English colonists were primarily of the dissident sects within the English Protestant establishment-Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers and others, is the key to understanding the rupture between the colonies and the Crown.129 In a theological analysis, the American Revolution can be seen "as a rebellion by groups within Protestant Dissent against an Anglican hegemony, a rebellion that played on divisions within the Anglican Church itself."130 This argument continues, if "American exceptionalism" is to be "a viable explanation," it must be expressed in terms of "American religious experience" and the fact that "while less than a tenth of Englishmen in 1776 were Dissenters, more than three quarters of Americans were enlisted in other denominations."131

B. Individualism, Capitalism, and the Constitution

By the early nineteenth century, the United States were "the most egalitarian, most materialistic, most individualistic-and most evangelical Christian-society in Western history."132 In fact, the United States continues to be unique among its allies in its "greater acceptance of biblical beliefs and higher levels of church attendance than elsewhere, with the possible exception of a few Catholic countries, such as Poland and Ireland, where nationalism and religion have been interwoven," and is "the only country where most churchgoers adhere to sects... [when] elsewhere in Christendom the... churches dominate... churches hierarchical in structure and [where] membership is secured by birthright. "133 The "strength of sectarian values," a determining factor in the self-selection process of many of the original colonists helping to inspire the rebelliousness that ultimately separated the colonies from England, continues to make Americans a moralistic people who preach `political correctness' from the left, and `family values' from the right,134 who can sermonize about the sacred right, to bear arms or the right to be free from second-hand smoke with equal zeal.

If liberty guaranteed by law was the creed of the rebellious colonists, the modern "American Creed" has been described as consisting of liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissezfaire.135 If one takes these five to be American `virtues,' then the opposite side of the credal coin reveals peculiarly American `vices:'

The lack of respect for authority, anti-elitism, and populism contribute to higher crime rates, school indiscipline, and low electoral turnouts. The emphasis on achievement, on meritocracy, is also tied to higher levels of deviant behavior and less support for the underprivileged. Intense religiosity is linked to less reliance on contraception in premarital sexual relationships by young people. The same moralistic factors which make for patriotism help to produce opposition to war. Concern for the legal rights of accused persons and civil liberties in general is tied to opposition to gun control and difficulty in applying crime-control measures. The stress on individualism both weakens social control mechanisms, which rely on strong ties to groups, and facilitates diverse forms of deviant behavior.136

American exceptionalism is often discussed in terms of the modern welfare state: the fact that among modern industrial nations, the United States alone has never developed a strong socialist party and has resisted policies (found in most Western nations) that assume governmental assistance is a matter of right.137 Comparing European constitutions and codes to the U.S. Constitution reveals that even in the eighteenth and ninteenth centuries, Europeans "acknowledged state obligations to provide food, work, and financial aid" to the needy, and modern Europeans across the entire political spectrum embrace the idea that governments have affirmative duties.138 "By contrast, it is almost obligatory for American politicians of both the right and the left to profess mistrust of government."139

Many authors have ascribed Europeans' automatic assumptions about states' duties to the heritage of feudalism: "premodern understandings of the protection that an overlord owed to his dependents, transposed to the sovereign in the emerging nation states of the eighteenth century."140 Individualism, a quality admired above all others by many Americans, was identified by Alexis de Tocqueville as both cause and effect of the American proclivity for Protestant sectarianism.141 Individualism, and its related anti-establishment and anti-statist fears, has led Americans to place greater stress on equality of opportunity for individuals (through education, for example) than on state solutions designed to achieve equality of outcomes for entire classes or groups, such as the European forms of social welfare.142

The American near-religious reverence for 'rights' and seeming indifference to 'duties' has thus distinguished the United States from virtually every other developed nation, and continues to drive the litigious, lawyer-centered culture. The documents created at the founding of the nation, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, speak almost exclusively of individual rights, reflecting the strong influence of Blackstone's works. Those documents have become sacred texts in the service of the `national religion,' and have made it difficult for Americans to understand the "widely accepted European notion-that the very legitimacy of government depends in part on its direct attention to the material well-being of citizens."143 The irony of the American worship of individual autonomy is that it has led the country to "systematically slight the very young, the severely ill or disabled, the frail elderly, as well as those who care for them-and impair their own ability to be free and independent in so doing."144 Similarly, the nation committed to the ideal of equality has become the least egalitarian among developed nations with respect to income distribution, and has the highest poverty rate of any developed nation, along with the lowest taxes and the largest economy.145

The American colonists knew that the form of government they adopted in 1789 was untried, perhaps even unimagined, until then. The Founders' confidence that their unique system of checks and balances would prove durable and promote the country's growth and strength has proved to be prophetic. What they would not have predicted is that so few nations would emulate their system, and that so few of those doing so would be successful. Americans widely believe that the U.S. Constitution has been a model for many of the world's recently adopted constitutions, but in fact it is primarily the durability of the Constitution that has been universally hailed as a remarkable achievement: "Other countries have overwhelmingly opted for parliamentary forms over our presidential system."146

When presidentialist states are compared to parliamentary states, the "frequent collapse" of the imitators of the United States' system of separation of powers indicates that "this [presidentialist] political formula is seriously flawed,"147 and that "parliamentarism `is more conducive to stable democracy' than presidentialism."148 Comparativists have long assumed that cultural or environmental forces explained the "fact that virtually all presidentialist regimes except that of the United States experienced authoritarianism and military coups," but recent analysis suggests that the disparity of success should be attributed to the unique and paradoxically "undemocratic" form of the U.S. model.149

The practices enabling the survival, without replication in other countries, of presidentialism in the United States may include the distribution of real power among the fifty states, the non-partisan career basis of the civil service, the allowance of more than one term for the president, the strength of the Congress (owing partly to the seniority system and the lack of term limits), political parties' lack of discipline, and the single-member district majoritarian voting system and the right of citizens to abstain from voting.150 The strength of capitalism in the United States, the ability of interest groups to influence public policy, and perhaps even the fact that this country has resisted European-style social welfare policies and their concomitant bureaucracies, have probably contributed to the durability of the United States' presidentialist form of government as well.151 Arguably, the adoption of some of the pro-democracy rule changes recently debated, "unaccompanied by constitutional reform" in the United States, could have serious negative consequences for the future of the exceptional American form of democracy.152

Constitutional reform has been a difficult, infrequent undertaking in the United States. The unique position of the Constitution as a "sacred symbol,"153 or "sacred text immune from the kind of critical analysis-save for marginal amendments-that other public documents are vulnerable to" is due in part to the "inherent weakness of the President as head of state," resulting in the elevation of symbols to sacred status, unifying surrogates for monarchy.154 After all, if the three major branches of government are intended to balance one another, none is supreme, and all three are creatures of the Constitution. Therefore, our public officials must swear loyalty to the Constitution "without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion."155 This uniquely American fealty to the Constitution makes the consideration of fundamental reform an almost impossible task.


A. Nineteenth Century Foreign Policy

Similar goals have driven the foreign policies of modern (i.e., nineteenth and twentieth century) Iran and the United States.156 Each country has placed a high priority on achieving independence from Europe and other great powers, and has also sought to dominate its neighbors with some degree of territorial integrity (Iran) 157 or expansion (United States). A primary distinction between the foreign policies of the two states evaluated in light of these goals is the degree to which the United States has been successful, contrasted with Iran's much higher rate of frustration and failure. It is striking that during the nineteenth century, America's successes and Iran's failures were often intertwined in a way that favored the United States. Western Europe's preoccupation with continental power shifts and Asian imperial opportunities left America relatively free to grow to its current borders and become the strongest power in the western hemisphere, while Iran was ensnared in European rivalries and great power games, effectively stymieing its independent development.158

The American colonies' independence from Britain was achieved after a long period of conflict between England and France, partly played out on North American territory. The British Empire had been at war almost half of the years between 1688 and 1763, and all of the American colonies had suffered economically, some of them more directly from warfare with the French and Indians.159 Indeed, in large part Britain's war financing needs provoked rebellion in the colonies. After the Revolution, the newly independent colonies soon learned that, notwithstanding their military victory, the price of economic expansion and freedom from Europe's domination, endless conflicts and intrigue would require establishing a stronger central government than the colonies desired.160 The Constitution was drafted and ratified against a backdrop of America's post-revolutionary frustration and impotence at the hands of the military and commercial powers of the old world.161 For decades after, the imperative of avoiding "entangling alliances" guided American foreign policy,162 but stubborn insistence on neutrality, also called "isolationism" and "unilateralism," was never intended to interfere with American global commercial ambitions.163 America was relatively small and weak in the decades after the Revolution, but the colonies possessed boundless natural resources within immediate reach, and the width of the Atlantic Ocean sheltered them from European invasion. "Their geopolitical position was so favorable that only they themselves could foul it up."164

Iran was not so fortunate. Surrounded by land frontiers on the north, east, and west, its only access to the sea is through the Persian Gulf, a small body of water surrounded by competitive states. In 1800 Iran lay between Asia and Europe on the map, but found itself caught between Britain and Russia in "the great game" of imperial strategy.165 Iran had been the heart of the vast Perisan Empire in the centuries before the Greeks and Romans ruled the Mediterranean world.166 Following the Arab, Islamic conquest of Persia in the seventh century, Iran did emerge again, but enjoyed its last period approaching imperial greatness under the Safavid rulers, ending in 1722.167 Safavid Iran had resisted the power of Ottoman forces for more than two centuries,168 but in 1800, an exhausted Iran was in the path of Russian imperial expansion to the south and a key route to Britain's prize Asian possession, India.169

Attempts at expansion weakened and shrank Iran in the early nineteenth century, yet at that same time in history, those same acquisitive actions worked to the advantage of the United States at the time of its greatest vulnerability. In the thirty-five years following the founding of the Qajar dynasty in Iran in 1795, Iran sought to restore territory that had once been Persian, including Georgia and other territory bordering the Caspian Sea. The Shah's ill- prepared armies lost two wars with Russia over these lands, and he was forced to sign two punishing treaties. The first one in 1813 not only granted the disputed territory to Russia, but conceded exclusive rights to sail warships on the Caspian Sea.170 In 1828 following two additional years of war, Iran yielded more territory to Russia, granting capitulatory rights to Russians in Iran, and was also required to pay a substantial indemnity.171 Iran was humiliated by the military defeats, but even more by the punishing terms of the peace treaties. Entry into three alliances between 1801 and 1809 caused additional blows to Iran's national pride-first with England, then with France in 1807, and again with England in 1809-as well as failure to inspire its allies to aid its cause in territorial disputes between Iran and Russia, or between Iran and Turkey.172

During this same period, the then centrally-organized United States was able to acquire new contiguous territories: Louisiana, purchased from France in 1803, and Florida, taken less delicately from Spain in 1819.173 At the same time, American sea trade suffered interference from England and France, at war with each other for much of the period following the French Revolution. Although the colonies had sought and benefitted from an alliance with France during their military rebellion against Britain, the humbling process of securing the aid took more than a year, and at no time during their alliance did America ever doubt that France had the upper hand.174 The United States ended the alliance in 1800, as soon as it was practicable to do so.175 Determined to defend its maritime rights and its neutrality, America declared war on England in 1812. In 1814 the British attacked Washington and burned the Capitol and the White House, but the war was concluded that year with neither side able to claim victory.176 By 1823 American confidence in its ability to withstand further interference from Europe was memorialized in the Monroe Doctrine, declaring that the United States would not tolerate intervention by European powers in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere.177

America's foreign policy successes at this time were very much influenced by the degree to which almost all of Europe was embroiled in wars sparked by the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon.178 Napoleon sought imperial conquests throughout continental Europe, but also had designs on Britain's Indian interests, and invaded Egypt in 1798 in support of that goal. By the time Napoleon retreated from Russia, and was subsequently defeated at Waterloo in 1815, his empire building had involved every European power, and it had required maximum efforts by several of them to bring him down. These distractions had contributed to the United States' ability to acquire the Louisiana and Florida Territories, and surely helped to insure that neither France nor England could easily dominate America on the Atlantic in its first decades of independence. By the time England had dealt with Napoleon, U.S. naval strength and economic growth had made its position-dominance over the Western Hemisphere-formidable, if not unassailable.179 Conversely, Iran's foolhardy challenge of Russia was probably of some benefit to France and England.180 An Iranian victory, however, would not have been of sufficient value to warrant the expenditure of substantial military effort on Iran's behalf during a time of such intense, world-wide conflict. Both Napoleon and Iran learned in those years that baiting Russia could yield disastrous consequences.

During this period, territorial ambitions marked the foreign policies of both Iran and the United States, and it would be fair to say that Iran's desire to reclaim contiguous territory historically controlled by Persian powers was akin to the justifications offered for Americans' continental ambitions.181 Unfortunately, Iran's goals were unrealistic in light of its military deficiencies and the size and strength of its foes. Subsequent obvious weakness resulted in the continued deterioration of its precarious position between Russia and Britain over the course of the nineteenth century.182 In ironic contrast, at mid-century the United States was demonstrating its own continental greed in the American West, but was much more fortunate in its selection of enemies and territorial targets. Texas was annexed in 1845, in 1846 the vast Oregon territory was partitioned in America's favor, and the country went to war against Mexico, managing to secure New Mexico and California by 1848.183 Britain, protecting its Canadian interests, was the opponent in the Oregon border matter, and also favored Mexico in the disputes over Texas and California. Fortunately for the United States, British advisors found Mexico a troublesome client and decided against military action to prevent the American acquisition of California.184

Britain had imperial fire-fighting duties around the world,185 but it is logical to assume that its investment in India, and the risk to it posed by Russia and the annoyance of Iran in Afghanistan weighed more heavily than Canadian or Californian benefits and American risks, and that Iran (directly) and Mexico (indirectly) suffered from that calculation. It should be noted that in choosing which battles to fight, or which territories to pursue, the United States and Britain were both guided by their long-standing beliefs in a racial hierarchy, in which northern Europeans and their descendants held the prime position, with various non-European, non-white and non-Christian peoples arrayed below them.186 This hierarchy carried with it a sense of mission to civilize the rest of the world that Britain used to rationalize rule over India and keeping Iran firmly in its place. At the same time, the Anglo-Saxon sense of superiority supported American expansion at the expense of Native Americans and Mexicans, and later of Filipinos and other Pacific Islanders.187 A similar impulse in Iran, ethnic nationalism, was a significant ingredient in its ambition to recapture lands held previously by Iran's imperial Persian ancestors.188

Iran attempted to follow a policy of "positive equilibrium" in the late nineteenth century, balancing the competing pressures on it by making equivalent concessions to Britain and Russia, the two great powers on its doorstep.189 This policy echoed young America's struggle to balance the competing thrusts of the European powers during the wars of the French Revolution.190 The American strategy was clearly understood in Europe, indicated by Talleyrand's advice to Napoleon in 1800 on the direction of U.S. policy should Jefferson be elected president: "Mr. Jefferson will make it his duty to unite around himself the true Americans and to resume in all its force the system of perfect equilibrium between France and England, which alone suits the United States."191 In the case of Iran, however, perfect equilibrium was never achieved, and in the attempt, the monarchy alienated its people,192 and galvanized them to rebel.

The series of concessions extracted by Britain and Russia in the nineteenth century hurt Iranian merchants and traders and stunted the country's ability to modernize on its own resources or to cultivate wide-ranging international relationships.193 In 1890 a generous, sweeping fifty-year concession was granted by Iran's ruler Nasir al-Din Shah, giving a British company exclusive rights to import and export all tobacco and tobacco products to and from Iran.194 This concession provoked the first of modern Iran's revolutionary movements, the Tobacco Protest, led by a coalition of merchants and clerics in several cities. The protest movement had broad support from the population, and after a strong boycott of tobacco, the Shah was forced to cancel the concession in 1892.195 The tobacco movement also marked the beginning of Iranian association of the monarchy with the evils of foreign domination, economic exploitation and national humiliation.196

During the ninety years between the beginning of the tobacco protest movement and the victory of the revolutionary forces over the Shah in 1979, Iran's foreign policy was just one of the venues of the ongoing battle between Iran's monarchy and its domestic foes. At some times, populist opposition was led by Islamic clergy and at other times by leftist intellectuals, but a consistent theme was the identification of the monarchy with foreign domination. Iran's dependence on its major foreign allies during times of the shahs' dominance-alternating with attempts at independence from its foreign allies during periods of revolutionary unrest-and the eclipse of...

©Copyright 2001, The George Washington Journal of International Law and Economics

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