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

AMONG THE array of U.S. diplomatic, military and financial tools for influencing Iran, democracy promotion is hardly the most consequential. But in its philosophy and implementation, the initiative is emblematic of the misconceptions and fallacies that have undermined the broader American effort to pressure Iran into abandoning its rogue behavior and to persuade its leadership to adopt a more constructive course. The historical baggage associated with any direct American role in Iranian civil society prompted a crescendo of objections from a range of prominent Iranian activists and dissidents. Only weeks after Rice's $75 million request, renowned Iranian human-rights lawyer Abdolfattah Soltani told the Washington Post that the funding would have a "negative effect", and Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi described the initiative as "very dangerous to society." Noted dissident Mehrangiz Kar predicted with hard-gained prescience that the U.S. funding "will destroy these newly developed [civil-society] organizations like a storm." These admonitions were echoed by dissident and hunger-striker Akbar Ganji upon his March 2006 release from nearly six years in prison. "Political change in Iran is necessary, but it must not be achieved by foreign intervention", he declared.

The Bush Administration effectively shrugged off these concerns. The combination of congressional zeal, the administration's infatuation with fostering "color revolutions" along the lines of Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, and the sense that "it was about time we did something", as one senior administration official acknowledged, propelled the program forward. The only nod to the potential sensitivities associated with U.S. funding was the decision to continue classifying its recipients, a move that predictably has only intensified the conspiracy theories associated with the program.

The near-term outcome of U.S. democracy promotion has been a fierce backlash from the regime and a corresponding freeze of Iranian civil society, curtailing Iranians' ability to engage with international organizations or accept external support. For Washington, the losses from the current wave of repression are more profound than the new scarcity of Iranian participants for Track II dialogues and other exchanges. By fostering debate and channeling political activism, Iran's semi-governmental organizations and intellectuals have played a critical role in advancing its political evolution. The ongoing intimidation of Iranian civil society and academia means that these parts of society that had improbably managed to thrive within the fierce political and cultural restrictions of the Islamic Republic are now under siege. This leaves a void in Iran's political life and in the organizational and ideational development of any future opposition movement.

There is some merit in the administration's argument that the current round of repression is a predictable outcome of Iran's dogmatic leadership, particularly Ahmadinejad and his appointees. Still, the U.S. tendency to evade its own responsibility in exacerbating the regime's paranoia and inciting a new crackdown bodes poorly for the prospect that the administration will exercise prudence in navigating the minefields of Iranian politics.

THE U.S. democracy initiative is based on the faulty assumption of the Iranian regime's vulnerability. Although the administration generally concedes that democracy promotion is the work of generations, it is clear from the size of the program and the breathlessness of U.S. appeals to Iranians that a much faster timetable is intended. Anticipating the next revolution is a longtime Washington parlor game, and each new rumble of discontent from Tehran brings a new avalanche of headlines predicting the regime's imminent demise. These expectations, while faulty, are not entirely without foundation. Iran has all of the risk factors for a revolutionary break: a disproportionately young population; restive ethnic minorities; an inefficient, distorted economy; and a regime mired in an obsolescent ideology, riven by factional feuds and reliant on repression.

But the focus on these weaknesses overlooks the unfortunate evidence that the Iranian regime retains enormous repressive capacity over society and appears to be firmly entrenched in power for the foreseeable future. Its track record is worth noting. The Islamic Republic has survived every calamity short of the plague: war, isolation, instability, terrorist attacks, leadership transition, drought and epic earthquakes. This does not imply that the regime is impregnable, nor that its leaders view it as such. Rather, the endurance of Iran's revolutionary regime through multiple crises is a testament to the adaptive capacity of the system and its leaders as well as to the lack of any viable alternative power center.

The Islamic Republic's persistence can be credited in large part to its resource base. In the short term, the steady stream of oil revenues (an estimated $60 billion in 2007) provides ample financing for Iran's security apparatus and politically-driven subsidies, as well as a cushion against sanctions and the consequences of the regime's policies. And Ayatollah Khomeini's about-face to embrace family planning in the mid-1980s has produced a dramatic shift in Iran's demographic patterns that will shortly begin to temper the inherent political risks and economic costs posed by its young citizenry. With the last of Iran's "baby boom" generation soon entering the labor market, the strain on resources and competition for jobs will begin to abate.

The regime's longevity also reflects the paucity of credible challengers. Despite rampant popular dissatisfaction with the system, no individual or group has emerged as a focal point for an organized opposition. Iran today has a pantheon of dissidents whose contributions to the cause of political change are momentous, but none has proven willing or capable of navigating a serious movement to take on the regime. The Islamic Republic's critics have slogans but no strategies. And, most of the political operatives who are interested in promoting change continue to channel their energies toward capturing or transforming existing institutions, rather than dismantling a corrupt system.

Proponents of U.S. funding, however, see the endurance of the Iranian regime and the opposition's weakness as a justification for an even more strenuous American investment in Iranian democracy. That remedy presumes that insufficient resources are the primary deterrent to revolutionary change in Iran and that American engagement will boost the prospects of such change. Unfortunately, both assumptions are incorrect.

Iran today appears trapped by revolutionary fatigue and political cynicism. The majority of Iranians may not like their political system, but they are also unwilling to indulge once again in revolutionary passions or even engage in mass boycotts of its rigged elections-not after having their hopes dashed most recently by the reform movement's failure and having witnessed the instability associated with the recent transitions to their east and west.

This is compounded by the generalized antipathy toward external intervention and the specific legacy of U.S. policy. Any association with Washington represents the kiss of death for activists and organizations in Iran-a double whammy that incites regime repression even as it erodes popular perceptions of legitimacy. And yet the United States has remained stunningly oblivious to the disadvantageous ricochet of its generally clumsy attempts to inspire of democracy in Iran.

AT THE root of Washington's democracy-promotion blunders is a simple but startling unfamiliarity with contemporary life in Iran. After a three-decade absence, the U.S. government is singularly uninformed about the country's political culture and day-to-day dynamics. With only a handful of Persian language speakers in the State Department and none involved in the design or implementation of the democracy initiative, the fractious debate of the Iranian press and blogosphere are impenetrable for Washington, as are a wide range of basic facts, such as the identities of influence-makers, composition of factional groupings and history of opposition politics. American capacity to cultivate Iran's future democratic leaders must be weighed against its failure to predict the rise of the reform movement or Ahmadinejad's ascension, and its reliance on an internet search to identify targets for UN sanctions in drafting a December 2006 Security Council resolution.

This dearth of knowledge is not purely a weakness of the Bush Administration. These same deficits are largely shared by American NGOs and the larger purveyors of democracy assistance, which have little direct experience on the ground in post-revolutionary Iran and whose opportunities to interact on a normal basis with Iranian civil-society organizations are fast evaporating. The decision to classify the recipients of the democracy initiative precludes any external effort to evaluate its efficacy or even calculate how much of the funding has been spent in Iran. Moreover, the tortuous effort to spend the 2006 funds raises real doubts about Washington's capacity to spend the next round of funds in a responsible manner.

The tone-deaf U.S. approach highlights a broader inconsistency: the question of strategic trade-offs. The very tools that the United States and its allies utilize to pressure Iran-economic sanctions, diplomatic and cultural isolation, and the threat or use of military force-provoke nationalistic responses. This helps consolidate the regime, mitigate elite competition and rally the population behind the very system Washington wishes to see them confront. Conversely, the sensitivities associated with any external involvement in Iranian internal politics ensure that Tehran would interpret the high-profile American democracy fund as an explicit attempt at regime change, an interpretation that could only complicate efforts to persuade Iran to bargain away the ultimate deterrent capability-its nuclear program. The program undermines the broader American strategy of trying to pressure and persuade Iran to the negotiating table by reinforcing Tehran's long-held paranoia that the principal U.S. objective is the eradication of the Islamic Republic.

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