Last weekend, more than 70 exiled Iraqi military officials and Ahmad Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress, met in London to discuss the ousting of Saddam Hussein. American diplomats, Pentagon officials and members of Vice-President Dick Cheney's staff joined British colleagues.
The surprise participant was Jordan's Prince Hassan bin Talal. Crown prince for more than three decades, Hassan frequently served as regent while his brother, King Hussein, travelled abroad. As Hussein was, Hassan is known for his moderation, his genuine desire for peace, his humour and his learning.
Two weeks before his death, Hussein altered the Jordanian succession to allow his son Abdullah to take the throne. Despite the slight of being passed over, Hassan has painstakingly avoided any action that might undercut his nephew's rule.
Pundits rushed to explain Hassan's surprise appearance at the London conference. Some argued that King Abdullah II and Hassan merely sought to replicate Hussein's shrewd diplomacy in the months before the Gulf war, when Jordan masterfully straddled the fence between American friends and Iraqi neighbours.
Others speculated that Hassan's presence indicated palace intrigue, with Hassan seeking to prove himself a better friend of Washington than Abdullah. Not likely. Not only are Abdullah and Hassan well liked and respected in Washington, but Hassan has also had far better opportunities to upstage his nephew if that were his goal.
In his speech to the exiled Iraqi officers, Hassan avoided politics and focused instead upon his family's relationship with Iraq--his cousins ruled the country until 1958. He insisted his visit was strictly personal, telling reporters: "I'm not carrying any signals." Nevertheless, his address raises intriguing possibilities for Iraq's future.
July 14, 1958, is a date most Iraqis wish to forget. Just after dawn, soldiers stormed the palace and murdered the 19-year-old King Faisal II and his family. For a decade after the revolution, there was sporadic street fighting, mass killings, assassination attempts and violent changes in government.
On July 30, 1968, the ethnic chauvinist Ba'ath party seized power. A young functionary named Saddam Hussein took charge of purging dissent, and did so with brutal efficiency, quickly ensconcing himself as Iraq's strongman. Within a month of formally assuming the presidency in 1979, 500 top officials lay dead, victims of Saddam's paranoia. One year later, Saddam launched his first war of aggression, targeting Iran and killing or maiming one million people in the process.
In 1988, he executed a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign against Iraq's ethnic minorities, killing up to 182,000 Kurds. Local surveys indicate that Saddam's government used unconventional munitions on at least 280 separate occasions. Two years later, he was at it again, pillaging Kuwait and once more bringing death and destruction to Iraq.
It is not surprising, then, that a common quip in teahouses and pool halls throughout Iraq is: "Saddam Hussein is God's curse because the communists killed the king." Iraqis did not grieve over the end of the monarchy, but the violent death of the young king engendered great sympathy. "He was just a young boy. He didn't need to die," one retired Iraqi teacher told me.
Most Iraqis today no longer remember their monarchy, but many nevertheless consider it to be the golden age of Iraq. After all, Iraqis can readily compare the post-Hashemite decline of resource-rich Iraq with the relative prosperity brought to a barren and resourceless desert nation by the Jordanian branch of the family.
As one drives through the hills near Sarsang in northern Iraq, locals point with pride to the former Hashemite palace (now a hospital) perched on the hillside, while they treat with disdain the ruins of Saddam's ostentatious palaces. Iraqis are not alone in looking back fondly on bygone royalty. In April, Zahir Shah returned to Afghanistan after nearly three decades of exile. While he no longer seeks the crown, the former king has played an invaluable role in Afghan reconciliation. His long exile gave Zahir Shah distance to mediate, and put him above the fray of blood feuds, warlordism and ethnic politics.
Equally significant is the rise of Reza Pahlavi. In little more than a year, the son of the late Shah of Iran has risen from relative obscurity to become the leading catalyst for democracy in Iran. Iranians old enough to remember the Shah used to visualise their society as European, on a par with Spain, Portugal and Greece, but now see their country plunging into economic chaos.
Too young to remember the corruption and brutality of the last Shah, they long for the good life of the past. To many Iranians, such sentiment is not empty glorification. In 1977, Iran's per capita income was equivalent to Spain's; two years ago, it hovered near that of the Gaza Strip.
A role for royals in Iraq should therefore come as no surprise. While Sharif Ali, cousin of the 19-year-old murdered king, pretends to the Iraqi throne, Hassan has spent more time in Iraq, is tried and tested, and enjoys respect and legitimacy throughout the Middle East. At the Kensington Town Hall conference, Chalabi lauded Hassan as "a friend of the Iraqi people". For the ruling families of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, a place for royals in Iraq may be more palatable than primacy for republicans.
Should he be interested, Hassan's experience and lineage--Hashemites claim direct descent from the Prophet Mohammed--give him the unique ability to usher a post-Saddam Iraq back into the family of nations, with him chairing a future constitutional convention and overseeing the reconciliation process. With Saddam's days numbered, Hassan's appearance in London may signal that Iraqis will have a future far brighter than their past.
Michael Rubin is a visiting scholar at AEI.