TCS Daily

Orange Iran

By Marc C. Johnson - January 17, 2005 12:00 AM

To understand one reason America's foreign policy toward Iran has been such a failure for so long, take a hard look at the website for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. NDI, which trumpets successes in Georgia, Ukraine, South Africa, Yemen and other countries, does not have any programs whatsoever for Iran.

Look at the International Republican Institute's Middle East page. IRI is hard at work in Afghanistan, Iraq, Morocco, Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan and Oman - but not Iran.

Surf on over to the Agency for International Development's 2005 Congressional Budget Justification for Asia and the Near East. Find out about USAID's development programs for Burma, Mongolia, Pakistan, Iraq and others. It's as if Iran isn't even on the map.

Finally, read the National Endowment for Democracy's Middle East and North Africa grant page for 2003. NED receives money from Congress and others to parcel out to groups like NDI, IRI, and a host of smaller non-governmental organizations. Programs for democracy building activities in Lebanon received $673,000 in 2003; for Morocco, the number was nearly $370,000; the West Bank and Gaza got at least $636,000. Programs for Iran totaled a paltry $55,000.

Why don't these organizations provide the type of service for Iran - basic campaigning, fundraising, voter outreach, message communication - that they render elsewhere in the world? The unavoidable answer is that Congress and the White House haven't provided the money or signaled any interest.

While the media fawns over Viktor Yushchenko and the marvelous work of America's democracy building policies in Kiev, mention the mere idea in the same sentence as Iran and you're labeled a wild-eyed, rabid Neocon.

Mainstream arguments against aid of this type for Iran range from misguided to specious to insulting.

Islam and Democracy Don't Mix. The most insulting refrain is that Iran, a country with no democratic tradition - and an Islamic one at that - is not ready for democracy. Setting aside the point that we continue to promote democracy in countries such as Egypt (which is nominally democratic but has strong authoritarian tendencies), 2004 heralded the first time Indonesia, the world's most populous Islamic country, held a direct vote for president and vice president. And while it has a long way to go, Iran's neighbor Turkey provides a strong argument that Islam and democracy can coexist.

The Opposition Isn't Ready. Most of the oppositionists themselves would have to admit this is true; it can hardly, however, be an argument against preparing them for the future. Bumbling opposition parties, and groups that are so disparate that they can't even be called parties, often rise to the occasion and lead the way in bringing about change in authoritarian states. People said the same thing about Serbia, Ukraine and Georgia. Today, though, these countries forge ahead with the dirty and divisive business of democracy.

It Might Not Work. Democracy building efforts in locales such as Burma, Belarus, Pakistan, Cuba and China appear to be stalled or, worse, regressing. But it is instructive to view such efforts in the longer term; civil societies take constant, sustained effort and careful planning. And nonviolently toppling a dictatorial regime through nothing more than people power is several orders of magnitude more difficult. IRI's Serbia program began in the early 90s, ultimately culminating in Milosevic's ouster in 2000; NDI and IRI have been in Ukraine since 1992 and 1993, respectively. To assume that preparing for democracy is anything other than a long term endeavor is folly.

It's Not a Panacea. Critics complain that simply training people in how to run elections, political marketing, and the like won't solve all Iran's problems, even the minor ones. While it's true that the country will, the day after a free and fair election, remain an economic basket case, the most cynical policy wonk can agree that a poor free country must be preferable to a poor dictatorship, particularly in the Middle East. While Iran will almost certainly remain to some extent a haven for terrorists and demagogues, the marketplace of ideas will ensure that their stock drops precipitously. And once the world is able to once again fully engage Iran, other measures - aid, debt relief, trade - can improve the lives of average Iranians.

It Won't Solve Our Core Security Issue in the Middle East. Assuming that core security problem is nuclear proliferation, true enough. Unchecked, Iran will almost certainly develop a nuclear capability before oppositionists will have enough support to bring down the mullahs. And many Iran-watchers contend that going as far back as the Shah's regime, getting a nuclear weapon has been a matter of national pride for Iranians. Supporting democracy-building groups, though, is not mutually exclusive with (indeed, it's more likely complementary to) prosecuting a robust sanctions policy through international organizations, which is what the Bush administration is already doing. And the need for democratic institutions will get more acute once the atomic genie gets out of the bottle.

But the democracy deficit throughout the Middle East may ultimately have longer-term ramifications than a nuclear Iran. Surely, then, the democratic experiment in Iraq must - almost by definition - have to include a parallel effort in Iran. The job in Iraq is already under way, and it has been messy, costly, and, some say, ham-fisted; if we want to avoid similar entanglements down the road (and save American lives), a small investment in democratic path-preparation is in order.

Iran is a Locked-Down Society. Iran is a police state; this makes getting the democratic message to the would-be voters a massive undertaking. But democracy training groups encounter all manner of government intervention and obstruction around the world - in Burma, China, Ukraine (formerly) and elsewhere. Milosevic's Serbia barred groups such as IRI from entering the country, yet somehow they continued - and, more importantly, the Serbs themselves persevered. This is neither a new nor an intractable problem.

We May Not Like What a New Iran Looks Like. Freedom doesn't mean that we expect everyone to fall in line behind us. Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica is hardly America's lapdog, and even those new democracies traditionally close to America (Poland, Romania, and the Czech Republic, to name three) still disagree with America on a regular basis. But it is a disagreement among equal democratic societies. Whatever short-term losses we may have policy-wise, a democratic Iran - even one that allies itself with others to Washington's short-term detriment - has to be a net improvement in US national security terms if the end result means diplomatic relations and renewed trade.

We Don't Have the Money. With our overextension in Iraq and looming deficits, there are some who contend that we can't afford an uncertain democracy-building project in Iran. This must certainly be the most ridiculous of all arguments. NED reported that for 2003, just under $1.4 million was spent on democracy programs in Iraq. And the much-vaunted Ukraine program, the fruits of which we see now, cost just over $1.5 million for 2003. By any measure, these sums are a drop in the ocean of taxpayer money being poured into foreign policy, whether of the guns or the butter variety.

* * *

At his year-end press conference, President Bush made a startling admission. According to the Washington Post, he said, "We're relying on others, because we've sanctioned ourselves out of influence with Iran. ..." In other words, the White House outsourced our Iran policy to Europe, which subcontracted it to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

There are a few relatively simple steps the White House can take now - right now - to signal that a real change is afoot and get some of that lost influence back:

· Provide sufficient start-up funds for NED and other organizations to begin work in Iran.
· Contact opposition leaders, inside Iran and elsewhere, to invite them to a conference to discuss the opportunities for democratic regime change.
· Let the president declare - clearly, at a major, televised speech - that America stands resolutely with those who wish to nonviolently bring about a truly free Iran.

Iranian Presidential elections are scheduled for June 17. Several hardliners have already announced their candidacies. Iran is poised to continue the dark path it has followed for the last quarter century. Can we really afford to miss this opportunity?

Marc C. Johnson ( is a consultant and freelance writer. In addition to Tech Central Station, his work has also appeared in Reason magazine,, and


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