Global Policy Forum

Catalyst for Iranian Resistance:


US "Democracy Promoters" and Regime Change in Iran

By Michael Barker*

December 18, 2006

The Iranian question is on everyone's lips at the moment, and judging by the ongoing discussions in both the mainstream and alternative (progressive) media, it is apparent that, one way or the other, the US (and its coalition of willing cronies) has its sights firmly set on bringing regime change to Iran. So far, for the most part, the alternative media has focused on the nuclear threat posed by the Middle East's most dangerous lawbreaker, Israel. The mainstream media, however, has persistently and erroneously portrayed Iran as the "real" nuclear threat. Even Britain's so-called liberal media is demonstrating its ability to "manufacture consent" for elite interests, with the BBC recently devoting an entire (Israeli-made) documentary to the issue of the Iranian problem, ironically titled "Will Israel bomb Iran?" (1) This is not really surprising, as the governments guilty of involvement are heavily reliant on the mainstream media's willingness to legitimize their "War on Terror," which in turn, could turn out to be the catalyst for an illegal and catastrophic foreign intervention in Iran (and thereby a catalyst for a global war).

Thus, although the alternative media has tended to focus on the Israeli nuclear threat in relation to the "Iranian problem," military intervention is only one among many instruments available to the architects of imperialism to promote regime change in Iran. Other methods commonly used to "encourage" geo-strategically favourable "changes" in leadership include economic and diplomatic persuasion. However, a relative newcomer to the armoury of foreign policy elites – and the topic of this article – is the use of democracy itself as a tool of foreign policy. A tool which is arguably one of the most potent weapons in the war of ideas waged by policy elites against progressive activists.

The strength of this new "democratic strategy" lies in its unique public relations value, which allows those who wield it to cloak their "free-market" agendas in the powerful rhetoric of human rights and humanitarianism. Ironically, the democracy idea was first picked up with gusto in the early 1980s, when President Reagan (with bipartisan support) created the quasi-nongovernmental organisation, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Needless to say, the Reaganites newly defined "democracy" quickly debased democracy as commonly understood by the American populous: a not wholly unexpected development from a government reliant upon covert propaganda for implementing their deeply regressive domestic politics.

Nicaragua was one of the first and most logical targets for the born-again "democratic" zealots manning the NED, and their commitment to democracy complemented the slaughter of the thus far US-supported Contras in the war against the Sandinistas. Professor William I. Robinson was the one of the first researchers to draw attention to the hypocrisy that was the antidemocratic practices of the NED's activities in Nicaragua. His seminal work on this topic was Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony, which examined the "hijacking" of democratic transitions in Nicaragua, Haiti, the Philippines and Chile. Crucially, Robinson concluded that the success of foreign interventions can "be understood only when seen in its entirety – as a skilful combination of military aggression, economic blackmail, CIA propaganda, NED political interference, coercive diplomacy, and international pressures." (2) (Robinson uses the term polyarchy to describe the "democracy promoters" actual unstated mission which is to promote low-intensity democracy as opposed to more participatory forms of democracy.)

Although most of the NED's work eludes critical commentary (by the mainstream and alternative media alike), a lot of attention was paid to the 2002 coup in Venezuela, which although ultimately unsuccessful (due to genuine popular resistance), obtained vital support from US "democracy promoters." Furthermore, recent research undertaken by this author also illustrated the crucial coordinating role the NED played in facilitating the Serbian revolution in 2000, and in the ensuing coloured revolutions across Eastern Europe. (3) Therefore, given the lack of critical analyses of the NED's activities, this article will now attempt to shed some light on the role of the NED in promoting a "democratic" transition in Iran.

War or Revolution?

First of all, although the focus of this article is on the cynical utilization of "democracy" as a foreign policy tool, much evidence still suggests that the Bush administration plans to unleash yet another blood bath upon the Middle East (700,000 and counting – or not in the case of the Western aggressors – in Iraq). Indeed, Bush's "democracy promoting" ambitions for Iran certainly don't rule out the possibility that the US may have an actual attack in mind; especially considering the polyarchal precedents set in Nicaragua and Serbia, where "democratic" success relied in large part upon the preceding US-backed wars.

Alternatively, it is still also possible that the election-conscious American regime may consider the "mere" threat of a nuclear holocaust to be enough of a stimulus for regime change within Iran. Perhaps they are even hoping that a non-violent revolution will be led by a terrified majority desperate to prevent their countries imminent destruction.

Either way, war or no war, it is urgent that progressive activists understand, expose, and criticize the insidious nature of the mechanisations of all would-be "democracy promoters." In this respect, this article will only examine the role of the most prominent US-based "democracy promoting" organisation, the NED. However, it should be noted that the "promotion of democracy" is a global phenomena, whose very legitimacy relies upon the support from a multitude of international actors. (4)

The NED Goes to Iran

The 2005 Iranian election was "met with worldwide approval." (5) It was, it seemed, a signal to the rest of the world that Iran was preparing itself for a more western style of democratic governance. But, despite the apparent legitimacy of the elections, it became evident in February 2006 that the US administration was now in "Iranian democracy promoting mode." It was then that Condoleezza Rice first announced she was requesting $85 million from Congress for the newly formed Office of Iranian Affairs. This initiative built upon the earlier activism of Senators Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) who had introduced the Iran Freedom and Support Act of 2004 which declared the need for democracy and regime change in Iran. (6) However, to date the NED's activities in Iran (which are carried out openly and even described on their website) have not even been mentioned in the media. Their "democratic" rhetoric seems to have worked its wonders and allowed the NED to completely slip under the radar of the world's media. In fact, even before the advent of the Iran Freedom and Support Act the NED had been openly meddling in Iranian affairs. According to the NED's online project database five Iranian groups received NED aid prior to 2004: the Iran Teachers Association, the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, the National Iranian American Council, the Women's Learning Partnership, and the Abdorrahaman Boroumand Foundation. (7) Therefore, in a bid to understand what US-led "democracy" will mean for Iran, the activities of each of these organisations will now be examined in turn.

The Iran Teachers Association (ITA) was one of the first Iranian groups to receive NED aid. Between 1991 and 2003 they were the recipients of seven NED grants. These grants – worth a total of just over $300,000 – were distributed to support the ITA's quarterly cultural and political journal, Mehregan. In 1992 the neoconservative Bradley Foundation provided them with a further $25,000 grant to help build a democratic Iran. (8) Unfortunately, due to the closure of their website little other information has been obtained regarding their activities.

The next recipient of NED largess was the US-based Foundation for Democracy in Iran (FDI), which was founded in 1995 by Kenneth Timmerman, Peter Rodman and Joshua Muravchick (with the assistance of some unidentified Iranian exiles). (9) The FDI received their first $50,000 grant from the NED in 1995, which was used to support their work in "document[ing and publicising] the human rights situation inside Iran through first-hand monitoring." The following year they received their second NED grant ($25,000), which enabled them to continue their documentation of human rights violations, which were to "be aired through international broadcast services such as the Voice of America and the BBC, in both English and Farsi." (10) The value of these start-up funds, not to mention the power of an NED endorsement, must have been invaluable to the FDI as a budding "democracy promoter."

Since then FDI have gone from strength to strength, and earlier this year they were even predicting that Tehran was going to test a (thus far seemingly non-existent) nuclear weapon before the Iranian New Year on (20th March). (11) Not too surprisingly, Timmerman, the foundations executive director, has been described as being "umbilically connected to the godfather of right-wing think tanks, the American Enterprise Institute." The other American cofounders of the FDI also seem to be card carrying neocons, as Muravchick is closely connected to the American Enterprise Institute, while Rodman signed the infamous letter sent from the Project for a New American Century to President Clinton in 1998. (12) (Incidentally, the American Enterprise Institute has leant its "moral support" to the newly formed Iran Enterprise Institute.) (13)

Like the FDI, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) which was launched in 2002, received its first NED grant ($25,000) in its founding year. The NIAC notes that their purpose is to promote "Iranian-American participation in American civic life," and the initial NED grant was used to help them organize a "two-day media training workshop in Iran for forty staff members from five civic groups." (14) Sticking with the media theme, in July 2006 they launched the US-Iran Media Resource Project, which is "aimed at ensuring that the [US] national media has the best information and interpretation available." (15)

Of particular interest are the establishment credentials of the Council's president, Dr. Trita Parsi, who earlier this year completed his doctoral thesis on Israeli-Iranian relations under the guidance of Francis Fukuyama and Zbigniew Brzezinski. (16) Last year NIAC also received a $64,000 grant to "foster cooperation between Iranian and international civic groups and foundations": this grant was also used to "hire a Farsi-English speaking expert to advise local groups on project development, proposal writing and foreign donor relations." Interestingly, a few years ago NIAC was associated with the controversial funder of the US Democratic Party, Hassan Nemazee (director of the Iranian American Political Action Committee). At that time, Nemazee was involved in "a ten-million-dollar damage claim against the Student Movement Coordination Committee for Democracy in Iran (SMCCDI) and its coordinator, Aryo B. Pirouznia." (17)

As his support of the Kerry campaign suggests, Nemazee moves in influencial "democratic" circles, and he has been a trustee of the Asia Society since 2003. (18) The Asia Society provides an early example of a "democracy promoting" organisation, which was founded in 1956 by John D. Rockefeller III "to foster understanding between Asians and Americans"; furthermore, former chair of the Asia Sociey, Richard Holbrooke, is currently on the board of the NED. (19) From 2001 to 2002, Nemazee was also a member of the board of directors of the American Iranian Council, a nonprofit organization "dedicated to improving US-Iran relations." (20) Notable "democratic" directors of the American Iranian Council include, Judith Kipper (director of the right wing Middle East Forum), Shireen Hunter (director of Islamic Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies), and chairman David J. Lesar (president and CEO of Halliburton). (21)

The third group to receive NED backing is the Women's Learning Partnership (WLP), which in 2003 obtained $115,000 from the NED to work with the Afghan Institute of Learning "to develop an e-learning center… for Afghan and Iranian Persian speakers" to "advance women's rights and democracy advocacy." WLP was founded in the mid 1990s by former Minister of State for Women's Affairs in Iran, Mahnaz Afkhami, who now lives in exile in the US. WLP describes itself as "a builder of networks, working with 18 autonomous and independent partner organizations in the Global South, particularly in Muslim-majority societies." (22) WLP's president, Ms. Afkhami, is currenltly also the executive director of the Foundation for Iranian Studies, and in the past she was the president of the Sisterhood is Global Institute (SIGI). (23) During the 1990s, SIGI received two NED grants for their work promoting women's rights in the Middle East, and in 1996 they received $25,000 from the Bradley Foundation to "support a series of workshops in Tehran, Iran under the direction of Dr. Azar Nafisi" (a writer and professor at Johns Hopkins University, and a trustee of FIS). (24)

Ms. Afkhami has also worked with a number of other global NGOs, including the World Movement for Democracy and the Global Fund for Women. (25) Both of these organizations are ideologically linked to the NED, as the former was created by the NED in 1999, (26) while lasy year one of directors of the Global Fund for Women, Professor Sakena Yacoobi, received the NED's prestigous Democracy Award. (27) Professor Yacoobi is also a founder and executive director of the Afghan Institute of Learning (which works closely with WLP). In addition, Yacoobi is the vice president of Creating Hope International where she works alongside fellow director, Betsy Amin-Arsala – American-born wife of Afghanistan's vice-president, Hedayat Amin-Arsala. (28) (Hedayat is a former World Bank staffer and Senior Advisor and member of the Afghan Mujahideen Unity Council.) (29)

The final Iranian group to receive NED funding prior to 2004 was the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation (ABF), a non-governmental organization which promotes human rights and democracy in Iran. ABF was founded in 2001 by Ladan and Roya Boroumand, the daughters of Abdorrahman Boroumand, "an Iranian lawyer and pro-democracy activist who was assassinated, allegedly by the agents of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in Paris on April 18, 1991." (30)

ABF received their first NED grant of $25,000 in 2002 to "establish an Iranian human rights memorial web site" with a "Farsi-language electronic library on human rights laws and instruments." They then received $30,000 in 2003 to help develop their website, and a further $135,000 the following year to continue their work and to launch the "Iran Human Rights Memorial." Like many of the other Iranian organisations receiving NED aid, the ABF's connections with such "democratic" organisatiions are more diverse than the funding alone, as Ladan Boroumand was formerly a visiting fellow at the NED-founded International Forum for Democratic Studies. (31) In 2003, ABF also received a $150,000 grant from the conservative "Smith Richardson Foundation" for a project entitled Iran's Transition to Democracy.

NED's Work in Iran Post-2004

Since 2004, five other groups, not mentioned in the preceding discussion, have also received NED money, they are the Vital Voices Global Partnership, the Institute of World Affairs, and three of the NED's four core grantees, the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, the Center for the International Private Enterprise, and the International Republican Institute.

In 2004, Vital Voices Global Partnership received $40,500 to "conduct a leadership training-of-trainers seminar in Washington, DC for five emerging women leaders" to help "improve the political, economic and social status of Iranian women." The three honorary chairs of the partnership include former First Lady Hillary Clinton, and two US senators, Kay Hutchison (R-TX) and Nancy Baker (R-KS). (32) This in itself is a case in point as, who else could promote democracy better than a bona fide Democrat like Ms. Clinton? Likewise, in 2004, the Center for the International Private Enterprise received $56,000 to "inject the voice of business into the reform debate in Iran."

The Institute of World Affairs (IWA) is a non-profit organization ostensably "devoted to international understanding and the peaceful resolution of conflict." In 2005, they received a $45,800 grant from the NED to "start the debate for judicial reform through research, training programs, and legal consultations focusing on problematic issues of law and justice in Iran." Dr. Hrach Gregorian is the current president of the IWA, and his biography proudly notes that he has also "helped to establish the international conflict resolution skills training program at the United States Institute of Peace" (USIP). (33) Judging by the paucity of critical enquiries into the USIP's activities, it seems that it is an institution that is familiar to few. The USIP is a quasi-nongovernmental organization created by Congress in 1984 (the same year the NED was formed), whose board of directors was, in the 1980s, described as being "a who's who of right wing academia and government." (34) The USIP also shares more with the NED than just its birth date. Carl Gershman (the NED's president) was a contributor to the USIP's Journal: and Allen Weinstein (who directed the creation of the NED) and Evron Kirkpatrick (the husband of fellow NED creator Jeane Kirkpatrick) are both well connected to the USIP. (35)

In 2005, the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS also known as the Solidarity Center) obtained $185,000 from the NED to "support the emergence of a sustainable independent labor movement" in Iran. To understand the type of labor groups usually drawn into cooperating with the Solidarity Center, it useful to examine recent NED-related activities in Venezuela. Here we find that the NED provided aid to the organisations involved in the (temporary) ousting of democratically elected Hugo Chavez in 2002. They also provided the Solidarity Center with nearly US$600,000 between 1997 and 2001, significant due to the close links to the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (the group involved in the strike actions against Chávez in 2003). (36)

With regard to the Solidarity Center's recent work in Iran, the NED notes that the money they received in 2005 would be used to "conduct an international workshop for Iranian labor leaders to acquire skills and benefit from the experiences of other trade unionists." To protect the attendee's identities, such meetings are carried out in secret. However, it is likely that such workshops are used to put Iranian labor activists in contact with other NED activists, like for example those involved in opposing Chavez in Venezuela.

Finally in 2005, the International Republican Institute (IRI) received $110,000 to help link reformist "Iranian political activists to democratic reformers in other countries" and to "strengthen their communications and organizing capacity through the provision of skills-building and increased access to information." These activities were acknowledged by the IRI's president, Lorne W. Craner, who reported to the New York Times earlier this year that they have been offering training to Iranian democratic activists for the past few years. (37)

Although there is no direct connection, in 2005, a secretive "skills-building" meeting for Iranian activists – self described as a "human-rights" workshop – was held in Dubai (United Arab Emirates). According to an attendee, the workshop was organized by "a mixture of Los Angeles-based exiled Iranians, Americans… and three Serbs who said they belonged to the Otpor democratic movement that overthrew the late Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic in 2000." (38) The Serbian connection suggests the possible involvement of two NGO's formed by ex-Otpor members after the ouster of Milosevic, those being the Centre for Non-violent Resistance and the Center for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies; both of which offer training courses all over the world on how to create and run resistance movements. (39) Other possible workshop organizers include the Washington-based International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, as the Dubai workshop focused on teaching how the non-violent tactics used in Serbia could be used "to bring down the [Iranian] regime." (40)

Locking-in Neoliberal Democracy (or Polyarchy)

For the sake of brevity this article has limited itself to the NED's work in Iran, however, in the past few years a number of other writers have been exploring other ways in which the US is "promoting democracy" in Iran. For example, see the work of Laura Rozen, Guy Dinmore, Howard LaFranchi, and Farah Stockman. (41) Furthermore, it should be clear that many other countries are working alongside the US to promote polyarchy in Iran, although few studies have scrutinized the significance of their roles in the global "promotion of democracy."

No properly informed person would argue that democracy (particularly participatory democracy) is flourishing in Iran, but the major problem with the promotion of polyarchy, is that its spells the effective death knell for (possible) future transitions to more participatory forms of governance. However, for the time being, as Benjamin Isakhan has recently shown, the Middle-East can take pride that it, and not Greece, was the birthplace of modern day democracy (contrary to popular beliefs promoted in and by the West). (42)

In reaction to the recent expansion (and discussion of) the NED's "democratic" interventions, two US-based groups have begun documenting and exposing the fraudulent activities of the NED – they are the International Endowment for Democracy ( and In the Name of Democracy ( Furthermore, Wikipedia sites such as the Center for Media and Democracy's (, provide useful means to research the interlocking relationships between the numerous "democracy promoting" organizations and their grantees.

Sadly, however, it will take more than the limited distribution networks of alternative news media to seriously challenge the hypocritical and antidemocratic practices typified by the NED. It is therefore vital that all people, with even a passing interest in the foreign affairs of their elected governments, work to return journalism to the mainstream media, so that we, (as responsible citizens of the world), can begin to have free, open and participatory discussions about the future of democracy. As Robert McChesney observes; "regardless of what a progressive group's first issue of importance is, its second issue should be media and communication, because so long as the media are in corporate hands, the task of social change will be vastly more difficult, if not impossible, across the board." (43) So let's reclaim media and reclaim democracy.

About the Author: Michael Barker is a doctoral candidate at Griffith University, Australia. I would like to thank SourceWatch, through which much of the research for this article was undertaken.


(1) Jonathan Cook, Israel's Plan For A Military Strike On Iran, (Zmag, 15 October 2006),
(2) William I. Robinson, A Faustian Bargain: US Intervention in the Nicaraguan Elections and American Foreign Policy in the Post-Cold War Era, (Westview Press, 1992), p. 146.
(3) Michael Barker, Taking the Risk Out of Civil Society: Harnessing Social movements and Regulating Revolutions, Refereed paper presented to the Australasian Political Studies Association Conference, University of Newcastle 25-27 September 2006,,%20Michael.pdf
(4) Thomas O. Melia, The Democracy Bureaucracy: The Infrastructure of American Democracy Promotion, (2005),
(5) Ignacio Ramonet, Democracy To Order, (Le Monde Diplomatique, March 2006),
(6) According to Laura Rozen, The Revolution Next Time, (The Boston Globe, 10 October 2004); this act "declared that ‘it should be the policy of the United States to support regime change for the Islamic Republic of Iran and to promote the transition to a democratic government to replace that regime' and would authorize the president to ‘provide assistance to foreign and domestic pro-democracy groups opposed to the non-democratic Government of Iran.'"
(7) Data on NED funding before 1990 is unavailable on their online grant database.
(8) Media Transparency, Grant Detail,
(9) According to his Timmerman's official biography (, since 1987 he has "operated Middle East Data Project, Inc., a small business that has provided investigative support and policy guidance to government agencies and private companies on three continents."
(12) Project for a New American Century, (26 January 1998),
(13) Laura Rozen, Iran Hawks Reorganize (The American Prospect, 13 November 2006),
(15) This project is also funded through grants by Connect US Fund and the Ploughshares Fund, see
(16) Dr Parsi's doctorate work will be published next year by Yale University Press and is titled Treacherous Triangle: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States, see
(17) Nemazee's lawyer also built "the case about the relationship between Pirouznia and another pair of stalwart Iran democracy activists: Banadsheh Zand-Bonazzi and Elio Bonazzi." "Zand-Bonazzi's father, Siamak Pourzand, is a well-known Iranian journalist, intellectual, freedom fighter – and political prisoner of the Islamic regime." See Robert Spencer, Kerry's Iranian Connection Fights Democracy, (, 8 September 2004),
(19) [2] (
(24) Brian Whitaker linked Dr. Nafisi to a bevy of neoconservatives in his article, Conflict and Catchphrases (Guardian Unlimited, 24 February 2003),
(25) also involved with and the International League for Human Rights
(34); Richard Hatch and Sara Diamond, Operation Peace Institute, (Zmag, July/Aug 1990).
(36) Kim Scipes, AFL-CIO in Venezuela: Dejí  vu all over again, (Labor Notes, 2004),; Kim Scipes, An Unholy Alliance: The AFL-CIO and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in Venezuela, (Zmag, 2005),
(37) Steven R. Weisman, U.S. Program is Directed at Altering Iran's Politics, (New York Times, 15 April 2006),
(38) Annon, Inside the US's Regime-Change School, (Asia times, 14 March 2006),
(39) KS, Serbian Regime Topplers Share Know-How, (Agence France Presse, 2 October 2005).
(40) Annon, Inside the US's Regime-Change School; for further details on the International Center on Nonviolent Conflicts see, Jonathan Mowat, The Coup Plotters (Online Journal, 17 March 2005),
(41) Laura Rozen, U.S. Moves to Weaken Iran (New York Times, 19 April 2006),; Guy Dinmore, US and UK Develop Democracy Strategy for Iran, (Financial Times, 21 April 2006) Howard LaFranchi, A Bid to Foment Democracy in Iran, (Christian Science Monitor, 17 February 2006),; Farah Stockman, Rice Wants Funds for Democracy Initiative in Iran, (The Boston Globe, 9 March 2006), Farah Stockman, Iran Tensions Rise, (The Boston Globe, 9 March 2006),
(42) Benjamin Isakhan, Re-thinking Middle Eastern Democracy: Lessons from Ancient Mesopotamia, Refereed paper presented to the Australasian Political Studies Association conference, (University of Newcastle, 25-27 September 2006),
(43) Robert R. McChesney, Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy, (Seven Stories Press, 1997), p.71.

More Information on Empire?
More General Analysis on the Threat of US Intervention in Iran
More Information on Iran
More Information on US Military Expansion and Intervention
More General Analysis on Media and the Project of Empire


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.