Fear and Loathing in Tehran

August 29, 2007 Topic: DemocracyHistorySociety Regions: Persian GulfMiddle East

Fear and Loathing in Tehran

Mini Teaser: By meddling in Iran’s internal affairs, the United States has inflamed Iranian fears and made a muddle of U.S. policy.

by Author(s): Suzanne Maloney


LIKE MOM and apple pie, supporting democracy in Iran has universal appeal in U.S. politics. So it is predictable that the February 2006 surprise request by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for $75 million in supplemental funding to support the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people won ready bipartisan acclaim and the sort of unquestioningly adulatory U.S. media coverage that was all too rare for an administration mired in Iraq and increasingly on the defensive at home. The dramatic new initiative found favor with American pundits and policymakers because it offered something for everyone. It represented a low-cost, feel-good means of leveraging palpable dissatisfaction among Iran's young population and intensifying pressure on the regime-all while bolstering the administration's bona fides on its much-hyped "Freedom Agenda" and placating advocates of more aggressive action toward Tehran.

Rice's democracy initiative signaled a subtle but important transformation in America's approach-one that had long relied on isolation as the primary tool for containing the Islamic Republic. For the Bush Administration, the challenges posed by Iran were too urgent and its political trajectory too unpredictable to wait out its current leadership; moreover, even a more robust form of isolation failed to satisfy the administration's ideological predilections for idealistic interventionism. And so even as Washington reluctantly proffered tactical engagement with Tehran on Iraq and the nuclear question, the underlying rationale for American policy shifted in favor of direct U.S. efforts to influence the nature of the regime and the structure of power in Iran. This has not entailed a full-fledged American embrace of regime change-which Rice has disavowed pointedly even as reports of U.S. covert programs have surfaced in the media-but an amateurish array of programs and tactics intended to splinter Iran's political elite and strengthen its opponents. From the Iranian perspective, this may be a distinction without a difference.

Some of the assumptions that inform this new approach to Iran are not particularly controversial. That change in Iran is necessary-advancing both Iranian aspirations and American interests-is self-evident. But if the need for political change in Iran is uncontestable, the same cannot be said for the administration's chosen means for advancing it: Its self-imposed constraints on contact with Tehran and a hopelessly flawed, one-size-fits-all approach to democracy promotion.

The United States faces a two-fold problem: The legacy of bungled American involvement in Iran and a misreading of Iran's current political dynamics that stems from a worryingly familiar exaggeration of our ability to shape positive outcomes in countries we know nothing about. Our efforts to open political space in Iran are helping to constrict it, exacerbate the persecution complex of Iran's revolutionaries and lessen the prospect for advancing diplomatic solutions to the Iranian challenge. Like other Bush Administration endeavors, a radical new policy that seemed like a "slam dunk" at home is imploding on implementation.

THE NATURE of Iran's Islamic regime is at the heart of Washington's concerns about Iranian policies. Yet until recently the impetus to reshape Tehran was restrained by the humbling U.S. experience in Iran, particularly the U.S. role in the 1953 coup that unseated Prime Minister Mohamed Mossadegh and reinstated the shah to the throne, and the limitations imposed by our lack of presence there. The Mossadegh episode profoundly affected Iran's future leaders, and its principal conclusion-a deep-seated suspicion toward external powers-became internalized within the state they created.

In the aftermath of the 1979 Revolution, this legacy fed intense Iranian fears of an externally orchestrated counter-coup, exacerbated by the unrest facing the post-revolutionary government. As a result, one of the Iranians' primary conditions for ending the 444-day U.S. hostage crisis was a pledge by Washington, incorporated in the 1981 Algiers agreement, "that it is and from now on will be the policy of the United States not to intervene, directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran's internal affairs." Although the United States appeared to consider the language purely ceremonial, it remains salient for Iranians, who routinely invoke the non-intervention pledge in protesting U.S. actions.

American trepidations about Iran's internal politics were reinforced in the 1980s by the disastrous consequences of the Iran-Contra affair, which was, in part, an attempt to restore American influence in an anticipated post-Khomeini era. Iran-Contra reminded U.S. policymakers that covert efforts to influence Iran's political future were likely futile and that interacting with any segment of the Iranian political elite was politically risky.

The United States continued to misread, miscalculate and disregard its painful historical experience. By the mid 1990s, partisan wrangling in Washington revived the desire to venture into Iran's treacherous political waters. House Speaker Newt Gingrich called for a comprehensive strategy "designed to force the replacement of the current regime", which he called "the only long range solution that makes any sense." Toward that end, he pushed for an $18 million appropriation to oust Iran's government and other measures to advance change in Iran. Although the administration diluted its provisions, the "regime change" fund sparked a predictably vituperative response from Tehran, including a reciprocal anti-American fund.

Together with tough new sanctions that banned virtually all U.S. trade with and investment in Iran, these developments helped refuel Iran's enduring suspicions about Washington's intentions. Sadly, this came just as Iranian political dynamics were beginning to shift, thanks to intra-regime competition and the coming of age of Iran's post-revolutionary baby boom. The 1997 election of moderate presidential candidate Mohamed Khatami sparked interest in Washington in engaging with reformers, but a positive outcome was not in the cards. Since the key levers of power remained in the hands of orthodox hardliners, the most egregious dimensions of Iranian foreign policy-its support for terrorism and nuclear ambitions-remained unchanged. Ultimately, the Clinton Administration's efforts to purge some of the historical baggage of U.S.-Iran relations failed to change Iranian behavior or mend the breach between the two governments.

THE FAILED U.S. forays into Iran's internal politics, coupled with the Clinton Administration's ineffectual kid-gloves approach, paved the way for the Bush Administration's aggressive interventionism. First was President Bush's inclusion of Iran alongside Iraq and North Korea in the "axis of evil." Then came a White House statement on the anniversary of a major student protest, promising that "[a]s Iran's people move towards a future defined by greater freedom, they will have no better friend" than Washington. Sharp rebukes emanated from the Iranian regime, with Tehran depicting the statement as "open interference" and some reformers decrying U.S. rhetoric for compromising their efforts with the taint of American approbation.

The administration used this episode to signal its rejection of the faltering reform movement and its "conscious decision to associate with the aspirations of Iranian people", as one senior official described at the time. An American "dual track" approach emerged: twin focuses on pressuring the regime and consciously embracing the "generic" Iranian people. "U.S. policy is not to impose change on Iran but to support the Iranian people in their quest to decide their own destiny", Zalmay Khalilzad, then-Special Presidential Envoy for Afghanistan, said in August 2002. "Our policy is not about Khatami or Khamenei, reform or hard-line; it is about supporting those who want freedom, human rights, democracy, and economic and educational opportunity for themselves and their fellow countrymen and women."

As part of this shift, the administration cut off its successful quiet dialogue with Tehran on regional issues following the initial successes of the Iraq invasion, which regime-change proponents saw as the death knell for the neighboring government. They scorned the utility as well as the morality of dealing with Tehran on the eve of its presumptive collapse, and events inside Iran, such as the student unrest that erupted in June 2003, appeared to confirm their expectations. Any contact with official Iran was tantamount to "legitimizing" the Iranian regime, a new Washington taboo. As a result, the administration did not even seriously consider a back-channel overture from mid-ranking Iranian officials to explore the possibilities for a "grand bargain."

Meanwhile, many in Washington were pressing for even more robust U.S. action. The atmosphere was something of a free-for-all, with both the erstwhile heir to the Iranian throne, Reza Pahlavi, and the Mujaheddin-e Khalq, a reviled opposition group on the U.S. terrorism list, agitating publicly as the presumptive spokesmen for "the Iranian people." The administration's early efforts to foster political change were mostly comic fumbling, such as the Pentagon's dispatch of several staffers to Europe for renewed contact with discredited Iran-Contra figure Manucher Ghorbanifar.

In 2004, frustrated with the administration's failure to initiate Iran-focused democracy programming, Congress used a soft earmark of $1.5 million to require the State Department to award grants to NGOs to "support the advancement of democracy and human rights in Iran." State used the funds to support the National Endowment for Democracy and establish a center for documenting Iranian human-rights abuses, along the lines of an initiative by Iraqi exiles before Saddam's removal. Congress doubled the earmarks in 2005 and expanded them to $10 million in 2006, although the projects and individuals who received this funding were classified out of concern for their safety.

The 2005 election of a provocative new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, only strengthened American interest in fostering change in Iran. This served as the backdrop for Rice's February 2006 decision to gain that extra $75 million to "begin a new effort to support the aspirations of the Iranian people." Ultimately, Congress appropriated $66.1 million. In the supplemental funding, $20 million was designated for democracy programs, which in addition to the regular 2006 fiscal-year coinage meant a total of $31.5 million directed toward civil-society activities in Iran. While the administration continues the protracted work of spending the funds-only about half of the 2006 monies for civil society had been obligated as of June 2007-the appetite for cash appears to be growing quickly. For fiscal year 2008, the State Department has requested an additional $75 million.

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