With today's changes in the Arab world, let's reflect on how Iran became the devil of the free world.
This happened when President Jimmy Carter saw eliminating the shah of Iran as a top priority, believing naively that whatever would follow would certainly be an improvement. History has proven how very wrong he was.
In the 1970s, Iran was on the road to liberty. It had miles to go, but Iran under the shah was making significant progress. U.S.-Iranian relations in the 1970s had a liberalizing influence. Under Nixon/Ford an Iranian Parliament had been elected. Women's rights, education and free enterprise were moving in the right direction. With continuing U.S.-Iran cooperation and the shah suffering from terminal cancer, many predicted free elections and democracy taking hold in Iran during the 1980s.
Instead of building on that progress, Carter and the U.S. threw the shah under a bus. In 1979 the ruler was driven out. Overnight the ayatollahs drove Iran back to Dark Ages. Today the Islamic Republic of Iran is far more oppressive than what preceded it. Individual freedoms are non-existent. The economy is in shambles.
The recent government changes in North Africa and the Middle East are sadly starting to resemble the post-shah history of Iran. And remember, the U.S. had significant influence particularly in Mubarak's Egypt, as earlier with the shah in Iran. History will recall President Barack Obama's role in enabling the Arab Spring, as it recalls Carter's role in the fall of the shah.
With the political ascendance of the Muslim Brotherhood and new boldness from extremists and terrorist groups throughout the Arab world, individual liberties will soon disappear in the region.
Have we just repeated the mistakes of Iran 1979? Leveraging decades of foreign aid to Egypt, we had been comforted as for three decades Hosni Mubarak kept peace with Israel and kept the Brotherhood in check. But there was disappointment in the rate of Egypt's liberalization. Even so, when relatively few protested in Tahrir Square, why did the U.S. jump on their side and demand the immediate ouster of Mubarak? Why did we again throw an important ally under a bus, without a plan for replacing the Mubarak government and preserving regional security?
While the military retains some power in Egypt, Muslim extremists have been elected to Parliament and to the presidency. They are rapidly setting their agenda with radical Islamic law. Today the entire region is far more dangerous than two years ago. And Egypt's critical peace treaty with Israel is likely headed to the dustbin of history.
Beyond Egypt, in Libya and elsewhere in the North African/Middle East Arab world, the Obama Administration has supported revolution without a plan to see such movements strengthen rather than destroy individual liberties. And in Syria we seem helpless as 10,000 civilians are slaughtered.
After the November elections, the U.S. must employ new ways to leverage diplomacy, public education and foreign aid to reverse the decline of liberty in the Arab nations.
This responsibility comes with our being blessed as the world's strongest and most exceptional nation. No other nation can assume this role. Nor can the United Nations.
Simply removing dictators without a viable plan for what follows always fails. Ignoring nations where peoples are oppressed is not the answer. Horrors only escalate whenever we do. Nuclear proliferation with a strong Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah and a reinvigorated al-Qaida must be avoided. Leaving the Arab world, Iran, and Israel to solve their own problems or blow themselves up would result in global catastrophe.
Allowing regional stability to further decline would haunt future generations there and worldwide. We need viable plans to actively promote liberty, understanding that this will be difficult and take generations.
Every sovereign nation has the right to implement their unique form of governance. But when their policies and practices violate the liberties of other nations, such behavior must be addressed immediately, as we've learned repeatedly over the past 100 years. Iran is calling for Israel's destruction and developing nuclear capabilities, which could only lead to nuclear weapons throughout the region. We must prevent this. Meanwhile, we must work to preserve today's fragile Middle East peace as we promote longer-term solutions.
Obviously we have significant domestic problems to address. But this must not mean ignoring long-term threats posed from far beyond our borders.
The worldwide leadership role of the U.S. must be restored — no more "leading from behind." We made a devastating mistake in 1979 Iran. It would be insane to do so again expecting different results.
Tymann, as president of Westinghouse International, led business development in 75 nations, including most Muslim countries. He resided in Iran with his family before and during the Iranian Revolution. In the 1990s, he co-chaired the Clinton-Mubarak Presidents' Council for the Middle East. Tymann today serves on the board of a Washington-based nonprofit that promotes mutual understanding between Americans and the Arab world through educational exchange.