WASHINGTON — The parallels between revolutionary Iran of 1979 and war-worn Iraq today are striking and instructive. Iran's shah and Iraq's Saddam Hussein were autocrats who allowed no space for an opposition and prevented the organization of secular, middle-class groups - the kind that form the foundation stones for democracy. Two options were possible for dissenters: flight into exile or into the mosque.
When the two dictatorships collapsed, exiles returned and extremists emerged from the mosques. The former had no standing with newly liberated publics; the latter quickly imposed their own standing. In both countries, the end of the regime meant decapitation of ministries, state agencies, the armed forces, security services and the police. Discredited leaders went to prison or fled, and their troops were afraid of asserting themselves in the absence of any authority assured of long-term control. Arms were distributed in all cities.
In Iran, religious extremists immediately formed neighborhood and agency komitehs to enforce order - and seized property and goods they deemed their due spoils of war. A law unto themselves, these "true believers" and thugs seemed immune to outside direction. This pattern is now being replayed at local levels in Iraq's Shiite areas.
In Iran, opponents of the new regime assassinated a series of leaders. Iraq, fearful of its militant, Shiite-led neighbor, promoted rebellion among Iran's Kurds. Again, history may be repeating itself. One Iraqi cleric has been killed by enemies, while Iran and Turkey are accused of interfering in Iraq.
Iran's revolutionary turmoil led to profound public malaise and insecurity, just as the absence of postwar reconstruction in Iraq is leading to a similar atmosphere. Thus, a final and critical parallel. Iranians in 1979 were seized by profound fear that the US would enter in force to roll back the revolution and restore the Shah, as it had done in 1953. Despite this national Iranian conviction, the US diligently and openly tried to fashion a new relationship with Ayatollah Khomeini's regime. Virtually every US action or inaction was, however, interpreted as hostile by the religious clique. This paranoia culminated in the hostage crisis and a decisive break between Tehran and Washington.
In Iraq, we see a nation seemingly gripped by a similar suspicion and fear that the US will not leave until it implants a submissive regime to control Iraq's oil and permit military bases. Perhaps these suspicions will fade and Iraq will not plunge into the psychological depths that Iran reached. But a country devastated by sanctions and war and sharing Arab anger at American support for Israel is not apt to be charitable and forgiving.
Looking back over 24 years at Iran, it seems clear that the US shouldn't have made the attempt to woo revolutionaries whose successful struggle it had opposed. Washington should have pulled out and waited for revolutionary fires to cool and opportunities for cooperation to develop. Staying on, Americans became a natural target for extremists striving to build a mass following.
That lesson should be kept in mind by the Bush administration, if, in fact, it seeks a democratic Iraq. A unilateral, American-led approach may produce a variety of politics quite unsuitable as a model for the Middle East of Washington's dreams. Rather, a shift in responsibility to a UN or other multinational-led effort might ease the fear of American domination and provide a neutral guide for Iraqi democrats through the harsh landscape of competing groups and interests.
• Henry Precht, a retired foreign service officer, was director of Iranian affairs at the State Department during the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis.