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Lord Owen Says West Must 'Accept' Khomeini's Structures In Iran

The shrine to the late founder of Iran's Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in Khomeini's mausoleum in Tehran
The shrine to the late founder of Iran's Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in Khomeini's mausoleum in Tehran
When the Iranian Revolution overthrew the shah of Iran 30 years ago, much of the world was taken by surprise. Suddenly, the familiar Western look the shah had cultivated for his country was replaced by the unfamiliar face of an Islamic republic.

David Owen was British foreign secretary from 1977 to 1979, giving him an insider's view of the crisis. Radio Farda correspondent Sharan Tabari asks him how he regards what happened three decades ago in Iran, and where he sees things going from here.

RFE/RL: In hindsight, how do you assess the Iranian Revolution? Was it a good thing that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took power in 1979?

Lord Owen: These are very big and complicated issues and I doubt, myself, 30 years later, that it is very helpful for anyone to go back over the past in a sense of finger pointing, if you like. There are lessons always to learn from the past, but the Islamic Revolution has happened, Iran has changed in some ways for the worse, in some ways for the better.

The reality we face now is that Iran, for as far as I can see, anyhow, is likely to remain an Islamic republic. The question is what sort of Islamic republic? How strong will the Islamic faith be in governments to come? Will it be in a dominant position; dominant in politics; or will it be in a dominant position in the ethos, the religion of the society, but not seeking to be dominant on the political front? Now, I hope that is the way that Iran moves. It won't be a secular state but it will move, I hope, progressively to a situation where democratic politics merges, and respect continues for the Islamic faith but that it is not a religious-dominated government and religion does not determine the politics of the country.

RFE/RL: There are many people in Iran who believe that foreign powers are constantly [machinating] against it. There are many people even who believe that it was the British government that brought the mullahs into power. How do you respond to this?

Owen: Well, we have to remember that during the Second World War for a while Britain was the dominant and almost occupying power in Iran, so there are people who live in Iran who can remember a time when the British effectively ruled Iran. Now that has considerably changed over the decades since. There was a feeling that Britain had played the dominant role in the overthrow of Dr. [Mohammad] Mossadegh government [in 1953]. I think that is not true; in fact, the American CIA was more dominant than the British secret service MI6. But nevertheless, the truth is that both America and Britain overthrew Mosaddegh, or helped (pro-shah forces) organize, if you like, street demonstrations to bring back the shah from his exile in Rome....

We should have accepted Dr. Mosaddegh, and we should have tried to influence him to be a more openly democratic person, democratic prime minister, and not overthrow him.
Now, in retrospect, I have never doubted that was the wrong decision. We should have accepted Dr. Mosaddegh, and we should have tried to influence him to be a more openly democratic person, democratic prime minister, and not overthrow him. But that is one of these things, again, that are perhaps a mistake of history that we have to live with. But I personally think that our stance then was too interventionist, and basically I think it has turned out historically to be wrong.

RFE/RL: What about during the revolution in Iran? Do you think that Britain had any role in changing the course of the revolution?

Owen: Well, I wish I had had more influence. In retrospect, if I had known that the shah was as ill as he was I think he would have been dispatched under pressure, if need be, to Switzerland to recover and a regency appointed and the regency would have been given a very strong push by both Britain and the United States toward introducing progressively a democracy. So I believe, myself, a great opportunity was lost because we did not know how ill the shah was. And I believe, too, that the illness the shah had -- which was a cancer of the blood -- made some of his decisions very weak decisions, and decisions which had he been fitter he might have taken differently. So I think it had a profound influence on the manner of the fall of the shah.

RFE/RL: Could the shah's son ever return to Iran today to complete that kind of transition toward democracy?

Owen: No, not at all. I think that is over. I think the shah's reign ended in great tragedy and the revolution has changed Iran. Iran will not, in my view, want as its president someone who is a purely and simply hereditary ruler. They will choose their president in a way that many other countries choose their president.

My own belief is that the West should accept that Iran is going to have the structures that were introduced by Ayatollah Khomeini but with a very considerable dilution of the power of the supreme religious leader and much more of a shift away from the religious leaders toward democratic leaders and a genuinely democratic Majlis, or parliament.

RFE/RL: After 30 years, how do you assess the record of the Islamic republic and its impact on Iran itself, on its regional neighbors, and on the wider world?

Owen: Well, it is a complex history, the last 30 years. The first few years of the revolution were a total tragedy with appalling abuses of human rights -- people being killed and disappearing without proper trial and in a most appalling way. Unfortunately, history shows that revolutions are often like that and we can dwell on that but it was a very terrible time and many people fled the country, great wrongs were done in the name of the revolution, and it would be hard for any historian to look back on this revolution as a glorious revolution. It was a bitter, tragic revolution in many respects....

It is to the everlasting shame of the Western democracies that we stood back and allowed Saddam Hussein to have a flagrant attack on Iran against all the principles of the UN charter and...effectively encouraging the war to continue.
But then you came to the attack on Iran, very soon after the revolutionary government took power, by Iraq. And it is to the everlasting shame of the Western democracies that we stood back and allowed Saddam Hussein to have a flagrant attack on Iran against all the principles of the UN charter and we furthermore worsened it by effectively encouraging the war to continue.

And the eight-year war was a war in which the West was hoping that by having a long drawn-out war, a stalemate, the revolution would blow out its fervor and that the war would effectively lead to a transformation of the Islamic Revolution. In fact, it reinforced the Islamic Revolution, caused appalling misery, we even sat back while Saddam Hussein used gas on the Iranian soldiers, as well as, of course, on his own Iraqi people. And that means that we during that period built up a bitterness about the West among many average Iranians that I think will take a long time to eventually [wane].

RFE/RL: Where do you think Iran will be in the next decade?

Owen: A lot will depend on how this new dialogue, which I think will start under [U.S.] President Barack Obama, goes. And it is very clear that we are seeing a very major policy change, thank goodness, delayed for far too long, in the United States toward Iran. And I personally believe it should have happened a lot earlier and have said so repeatedly, and that the sanctions which were put on Iran as the result of the hostage taking of the U.S. personnel in the American embassy was understandable at the time but that it should have continued for 30 years is quite outrageous.

So we have to have a completely new relationship established between the United States and Iran, and it is conceivable that it will be successful. And, in fact, I am modestly optimistic that it will be successful, but a lot will depend personally on President Obama.

RFE/RL: What kind of changes do you think President Obama could bring? And what do you recommend?

Owen: I think President Obama is a genuine article in the sense that he is an American first and foremost; he comes out of a tough school of politics in Chicago, so don't expect dreamy-eyed idealists. This is a man who is a hard-nosed politician but a realistic and above all 21st-century man, and I don't think he is fighting the battles of the past. I think he wants, genuinely, a new relationship and the fundamental one is going to be how he deals with the [uranium] enrichment program that is obviously under way in Iran and the aspiration to become a nuclear-weapons state which is certainly held by very key influential people in the Iranian administration....

Starting a dialogue on all of these related issues and emphasizing that Iran should do nothing within the enrichment program to move to nuclear weapons -- and there are a variety of different elements where it is very clear you are creating and constructing a weapon and above all, of course, a comprehensive test ban -- these are areas where it might be that most progress is initially made and then to come back, of course, to look at the issue of enrichment.

And during that time, America establishes its bona fides. Now one way of establishing its bona fides, also, would be to say that the American air force which is in Iraq won't allow Israel to make a preemptive attack on Iranian nuclear installations and make it quite clear that it won't do so.