Saturday, July 10, 2010

How to Support the Struggle for Iran's Soul Part I


by Ilan Berman


1st part o 2


Iranian Reform and Stagnation


Does Washington care about freedom in Iran? On the surface, it seems like a silly question. Ever since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini swept to power in 1979, Washington policymakers of all political stripes have been holding out hope that a kinder, gentler regime would emerge in Tehran. Republican and Democratic administrations alike have expressed their support for freedom within the Islamic Republic, and both sides of the political aisle have condemned the regime's repressive domestic practices. Yet, concrete proof of the U.S. commitment to pluralism in Iran is hard to come by. The strategies by which the United States can assist Iran's opposition remain poorly understood and even less effectively implemented. This is unfortunate, since with the proper vision and political will, the United States can harness economic, diplomatic, and informational strategies to significantly affect the unfolding struggle for Iran's soul.

A Timeline of Dithering

The Carter administration, on whose watch the Islamic Republic took root, vacillated between appeasement of the new Iranian regime and complete political disengagement from it. Jimmy Carter's successor, Ronald Reagan, made isolation of Iran the official U.S. policy but did not seek to promote change there as he did within the Soviet Union's "evil empire." To the contrary, efforts to secure the release of American hostages in Lebanon even led Washington to embark upon an ill-fated plan to sell arms secretly to Iran's ayatollahs.

The collapse of the Soviet Union had the effect of sidelining Iran as a foreign policy priority during the tenure of President George H. W. Bush. The Clinton administration took up the issue but quickly became paralyzed by internal divisions: Should it try to foster behavioral change within the ruling class or seek a more fundamental transformation of the regime itself? The George W. Bush administration seemed to bring a breath of fresh air. Its post-September 11 advocacy of a "forward strategy that favors freedom"[1] fanned hopes among many that—in contrast to its predecessors—it would truly engage with pro-democracy forces within Iran. President Bush's calls for the Iranian leadership "to respect the will of its people and be accountable to them"[2] also raised hopes.

In practice, however, the principles of the Bush doctrine did not extend as far as the Islamic Republic. For all its talk about Iranian democracy, the Bush White House offered only nominal aid to those seeking freedom and pluralism within the country. Between 2004 and 2008, it authorized a total of $215 million in funding for all diplomatic programs dealing with Iran.[3] But only a small fraction of that sum—some $38.6 million—was dedicated specifically to democracy promotion.[4] And even those paltry funds were, in the end, diluted by bureaucratic infighting that served to undermine their effectiveness.[5]

Since taking office, the Obama administration has done even less. Eager to break with the policy of its predecessors and to engage with Iran's leaders, the new White House systematically downgraded the idea of promoting pluralism within the Islamic Republic. It eliminated the State Department's Iran Democracy Fund, the central node for pro-democracy funding during the Bush years, folding it into a generic Near East Regional Democracy (NERD) Fund that lacks a clear direction or mandate.[6] It cut off funding for the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, a nongovernmental organization committed to chronicling the regime's human rights abuses.[7] It likewise rolled back funding for a raft of other groups from nongovernmental organizations such as Freedom House to the U.S.-funded International Republican Institute, putting their Iran-related activities at risk.[8] In the process, it has sent the unmistakable signal that the United States is no longer interested in seeking substantive change in the nature of the Iranian regime or its domestic behavior.

Electoral Earthquake

The focus on this state of affairs has sharpened since the summer of 2009. The results of Iran's June 12 presidential election—in which incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defeated all challengers in a contest blatantly punctuated by fraud and manipulation[9]—generated widespread outrage in Iran, resulting in the most sustained outpouring of opposition since the 1979 Islamic Revolution itself.

However, while Ahmadinejad's reelection may have catalyzed the current protests, it was not the reason for them. The underlying causes for Iran's turmoil run much deeper and can be traced back to the socioeconomic failures endemic to the current regime. These range from runaway inflation—officially cited at 13.6 percent but estimated to be at least twice that figure[10]—to widespread poverty (with nearly a quarter of the Iranian population now estimated to live below the poverty line)[11] to what is perhaps the highest rate of drug addiction in the world.[12] Together, these factors have conspired to create widespread disaffection with the current regime—disaffection given voice by the "Green Movement" that coalesced in the weeks and months following the June 12 vote.

The Islamic Republic has responded harshly. It has tightened its already strict control of the Internet, passing draconian new legislation to regulate assorted "illegal" activities on the web and turning social networking tools employed by protesters against their users.[13] It has targeted opposition leaders, both secular and religious, seeking to discredit and silence them.[14] It has sought to intimidate Iranian opposition activists living abroad.[15] Additionally, it has attempted to shore up the legitimacy of Iranian supreme leader 'Ali Khamenei through a variety of measures, from a bid to alter the country's constitution to the elimination of potential clerical competitors.[16]

This response is understandable. Iran, after all, is a country in the throes of monumental internal transformation. Its population of 70 million is overwhelmingly young; nearly half (48.8 percent) is aged twenty-four or younger, according to official regime statistics.[17] Iran's ruling elite, by contrast, is aging and infirm with the majority of the Islamic Republic's original revolutionaries in their late sixties and early seventies. This generational divide is deeply significant. It suggests that more than half of all Iranians have little or no memory of the Islamic Revolution itself and, as the events of the past half year make clear, are alienated from the Islamic Republic—and may now be looking for some sort of fundamental break with it.

Leveraging International Trade

As the post-electoral crisis unfolded, the conventional wisdom in the Obama administration was that the United States could do little to assist Iran's opposition and that U.S. involvement would do more harm than good. In keeping with this belief, the president took pains to insist that the United States would not interfere in Iran's internal affairs, and his administration systematically muted its criticism of the Iranian regime's repressive domestic conduct.[18] Over time, however, Washington has progressively reevaluated the viability of Iran's Green Movement and its chances for success.[19] The State Department's point man on Iran, John Limbert, has gone so far as to draw comparisons between the current situation and the turmoil that preceded the 1979 Islamic Revolution.[20]

The Obama administration's lackluster response to Iran's internal ferment has thus far been predicated in part on the belief that engagement with the Iranian regime requires the United States to refrain from expressing support for regime opponents. Such a stance has served to buttress the Iranian regime, indicating to officials in Tehran that the international community will not weigh in decisively to prevent repression or to aid its opponents. This stance has opened up the administration to criticism that it has abandoned American values.[21]

A middle way exists, however. It lies in a model of "conditional recognition," under which the United States makes clear to the Iranian government that how it treats its internal opposition will directly influence how it is treated by other nations in a variety of spheres, including but not limited to commercial ties and diplomatic recognition. Such an approach is certainly not new. In the mid-1970s, the U.S. government applied a similar strategy toward the Soviet Union in an attempt to influence the Kremlin's internal conduct. That initiative—named "Jackson-Vanik" after its two main cosponsors, Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson (Democrat of Washington) and Rep. Charles Vanik (Democrat of Ohio)—linked most-favored-nation trading status for the Soviet Union to a liberalization of the USSR's draconian emigration policies. The approach worked: Eager to engage in commerce with the West, Moscow loosened restrictions on travel, granting freedom to a generation of Soviet dissidents and laying the groundwork for glasnost, perestroika, and the fall of the Soviet Union.

The lesson remains valid today. For too long, legitimate concerns over the Iranian regime's atomic efforts have overshadowed serious discussions about human rights conditions within Iran. But Iran is a country deeply interested in international recognition and desperate for regional prestige and, therefore, vulnerable to pressure that questions its status on these two counts. Washington can exploit this opening in two ways.

The first has to do with engagement. Outreach to Iran has been the centerpiece of the Obama administration's Middle East strategy, but as administration officials are quick to explain, it is not intended to be open-ended or to shield Tehran from the consequences of its actions on the nuclear front. The same should hold true with the regime's behavior at home. U.S. policy on Iran cannot become a foil that facilitates ever greater repression by the Iranian government. To make sure it does not, Washington will need to put Tehran on notice that the prospects for real, long-term dialogue—should the regime truly desire it—are as much a function of Iran's domestic practices as of its nuclear ambitions.

The second focuses on trade. The United States today has little direct economic leverage over Iran, but here Europe can help. Collectively, the countries of the European Union serve as Iran's largest trading partner with an annual total trade of more than €25 billion ($34.25 billion).[22] While European capitals have proved resistant to using this economic clout to pressure Tehran over its nuclear ambitions, there is reason to believe that the question of human rights might find a more receptive ear on the continent. That is because the countries of Europe, almost without exception, are signatories to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which obliges them to encourage "the effective exercise of civil, political, social, cultural and other rights and freedoms" abroad.[23] Over the years, those standards have never been applied in any significant fashion to Iran as a result of human rights concerns. Washington, however, has the ability to make that laissez-faire attitude an issue and to nudge Europe toward taking a more active stance on altering Tehran's domestic behavior by highlighting the regime's widespread domestic abuses, and the moral imperative of disengagement as a result.

Upgrading Official U.S. Communications

By objective measure, official U.S. broadcasting toward Iran enjoys widespread popularity within the Islamic Republic. The U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors estimates that the U.S. government's outreach to Iranians—encompassing the Voice of America's Persian News Network television channel, its radio counterpart Radio Farda,[24] and associated websites—"has a combined weekly radio, television, and Internet audience of 29.4 percent of the adults in Iran."[25] Audience, however, does not equal influence. Riddled with mismanagement, a lack of accountability, and a chronic absence of strategic vision, official U.S. broadcast outlets remain a marginal voice in Iranian politics.

Four years ago, a study commissioned by the Iran Steering Group, jointly chaired by the State Department and the National Security Council, exposed these deficiencies. That report found that the main instruments of official U.S. broadcasting into Iran "fall short of realizing their stated mission and mandate" on a number of levels from self-censorship in the selection of content, to inadequate analysis and interpretation of important events, to a failure to properly frame sensitive political issues.[26]

Those conclusions still stand, despite the fact that in the years since that study was written, U.S. broadcasting into Iran has received major infusions of economic capital and political attention. However, structural reforms—such as greater linguistic proficiency among senior managers and more stringent oversight over programming—have lagged far behind, as highlighted in a scathing report issued by the State Department's inspector general in April 2009.[27]

Reversing course requires the United States to make major investments in a number of areas. Chief among them is clarity of purpose. The current disarray in official U.S. broadcasting is attributable at least partly to a lack of unambiguous direction from the country's political leadership. In its day, the Bush administration—for all of its lofty rhetoric to the contrary—sent mixed signals about its commitment to a fundamental, political transformation in Tehran. The Obama administration, preoccupied with engagement of the current Iranian regime, has so far refrained from articulating in an unmistakable and sustained fashion a commitment to political trends that might jeopardize this policy. If, however, the administration hopes to be able to influence Iranian politics over the long term, it will need to articulate much clearer support for political pluralism in the Islamic Republic. And once it does, it will need to enforce that policy throughout the bureaucracy that manages U.S. public diplomacy.

This change, moreover, must be reflected in the quality of the actual content that is generated by U.S. broadcasting. Today, with some notable exceptions, U.S. outreach to Iran has degenerated into prolonged sessions of entertainment, often carried out at the expense of proven approaches to shaping the strategic landscape through cultural, intellectual, and historical programs. And the audience appears to have taken notice: Anecdotal evidence suggests that although U.S. broadcasts are ubiquitous throughout the Islamic Republic, they desperately need a reconfiguration that provides for greater discourse about liberal Western democracy, human rights, personal freedoms, and political independence.[28] Key themes that require amplification include: U.S. support for opposition forces within Iran; the extent of regime brutality against its own people; the corruption endemic to the country's ruling clerical class; and the dangers that the Iranian regime's persistent quest for nuclear weapons poses to its own population.


Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.


No comments:

Post a Comment