Global Policy Forum

Funding Regime Change


By Iason Athanasiadis*

Asia Times
(February 18, 2006)

Washington's latest policy of putting more pressure on Iran through securing additional funding for "democracy-promoting" activities inside Iran has been greeted with official and popular rejection, even open derision, in Tehran. "I think the Americans have no idea of what they're talking about," said Mamak Nourbaksh, a teacher of English literature. "No one is going to touch them [the funds], no one will work with them."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's request for extra funds marks a nearly eightfold increase in the US government's current expenditure on Iran and signals the beginning of a new period of concerted diplomatic pressure by the United States against Iran, a country that President George W Bush included in his infamous "axis of evil" speech in 2002. In seeking an additional US$75 million from the US Congress to fund Iranian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that promote democracy, human rights and trade unionism, Rice is broadening the range of non-military options at Washington's disposal to weaken from within Tehran's clerical regime. Of the new outlay, $50 million will go toward Farsi radio broadcasts; another $15 million is earmarked for increasing participation in the political process, including measures such as expanded Internet access. The Bush administration hopes to spend $5 million to fund scholarships and fellowships for young Iranians, and the State Department said $5 million "would go to public diplomacy efforts aimed at Iran, including its Persian-language website".

"The United States will actively confront the aggressive policies of the Iranian regime," Rice said. "At the same time, we will work to support the aspirations of the Iranian people for freedom and democracy in their country." Such pronouncements are greeted with open skepticism by ordinary Iranians who have seen the infrastructure of neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan sustain significant blows by US invasions, after which they have lagged far behind the touted recovery schedules. Iranians also have not forgotten the support offered by Washington to their arch-enemy Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s.

One of the militantly anti-clerical-regime groups that could stand to benefit from the new windfall is the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), a Marxist-Islamist organization that is hated within Iran because it sided with the Iraqi dictator against Iran during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War. The MEK has been registered by the State Department as a terrorist organization for the past 10 years, but now neo-conservative factions of the Bush administration are lobbying hard to remove it from the list. Should the MEK end up benefiting from US pro-democracy largesse, it would send a clear message to people inside Iran that Washington funds groups that engage in terrorist activity. Some reports quote unidentified US officials as saying that the MEK would not receive any of the new funds.

"Most of the groups which will be suckling from this new taxpayer teat include designated terrorist organizations such as the MEK and ancien regime agonists, all with their own agendas which are not limited to outreach to Iranians, as these groups have little if any traction or credibility in Iran today," said Donald Weadon, an international lawyer specializing in Iran. As much as $50 million of the planned allocation is directed at media planning, with the stated intention of extending the government-run Voice of America's Farsi service from a few hours a day to around-the-clock coverage. But the idea that Iranians would turn more pro-US if only they had access to free media belies the reality that, unlike Saddam-era Iraq, in Iran the people already have relatively unrestricted access to satellite stations and news on the Internet.

"If the Danish cartoons and most recent Abu Ghraib pictures are timed to promote another war in the Mideast and inculcate the 'clash of civilizations' mindset in the public," said Cyrus Safdari, an independent Iranian analyst, "then Madame Rice has a really bad sense of timing in seeking to 'reach out to the people of Iran' - who don't need $75 million to watch ... 'a few bad apples' from the US torturing people in Abu Ghraib."

Nevertheless, the announcement comes at a time when an increasing amount of evidence points toward the fact that the Iranian government is cracking down on access to information. The British Broadcasting Corp's popular Persian-language service has been blocked after the Iranian government accused the British Foreign Ministry-funded medium of being anti-Iranian. And many Farsi dailies have switched to a more nationalistic, less critical coverage of the government after the Danish-cartoon protests and the concomitant polarization.

"If the money goes to improve and expand VOA's Persian service, this would also be money well spent," said Professor William Beeman, an Iran specialist at Brown University. "However, Sam Brownback's $3 million [1] appears to have been sucked up by private parties with no possibility of public oversight." As a taxpayer, I would certainly object to more money being spent in this way - particularly if it goes to private commercial broadcasters where there is no open accountability as to operational activities or content. This would be a deeply irresponsible use of US public funds," Beeman said.

The US has a history of covert operations aimed at destabilizing the Tehran regime that went awry. In 1980, eight US commandos were killed at the beginning of an operation to rescue American diplomatic hostages held by the new revolutionary regime in the US Embassy in Tehran. After a US airplane and helicopter crashed, it was decided to call off the mission, but not before holding hostage for three hours 44 Iranians whose bus had stumbled on the scene. More recently, in 1996, an $18 million covert action aimed at unseating the government of then-president Hashemi Rafsanjani had its secret cover blown even before it started. Washington insiders, concerned at the potentially disastrous effects it would have, leaked the story to the mainstream press, prompting a furious backlash from the authorities in Tehran, which authorized a $20 million counteroffensive.

Washington's new initiative might end up backfiring and contribute to the further stifling of civil society in Iran, if experience can be trusted. NGOs are regarded suspiciously by the Iranian government and are often accused of being agents of foreign influence. Rice failed to make clear how the funds would be disbursed to groups inside Iran, given that Washington has lacked a direct diplomatic presence in Tehran for the past 26 years. Some American analysts have also reacted with skepticism at the initiative, pointing out that it may be a case of too little too late. "One suspects there are no shortage of potential Iranian Chalabis [2] ready to set themselves up in a nice apartment in London's West End with some copiers and fax machines and the requisite bank accounts to reap the windfall," said James Russell, a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School's department of national security affairs.

Despite other secret efforts the US Central Intelligence Agency has mounted in recent years, including a $2 million campaign in 1995 based largely on radio broadcasts denouncing the clerical regime, the CIA's analysts see little hope of creating a new generation of pro-Washington leaders for Iran.

1. Senator Sam Brownback, as chairman of a US Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee, successfully campaigned for a $3 million appropriation for 2005, mandated by Congress, to help pro-democracy activists inside Iran. This was in addition to the approximately $10 million annually allocated for such activities.

2. Ahmad Chalabi, an Iraqi exile, received millions of dollars from the US while being courted as a possible successor to Saddam Hussein.

About the author: Iason Athanasiadis is an Iran-based correspondent.

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