Monday, October 15, 2007

How Promoting Democracy in Iran Can Backfire

In a must-read October 19, 2007 article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled "Confronting Iran: How Promoting Democracy Can Backfire," Woodrow Wilson Center’s Middle East Program Director Haleh Esfandiari and International Security Studies Director Robert Litwak write about the unintended consequences of U.S. "democracy promotion" policies.

According to Esfandiari and Litwak:

"Current U.S. policy precludes broad government-to-government talks with Iran and seems to permit only episodic ambassadorial discussions in Baghdad on Iraqi issues -- meetings that serve as a forum for dueling talking points. U.S. law places formidable restrictions on the ability of American NGO's to operate in Iran. Meanwhile, while eschewing official contact, the United States attempts to financially support Iran's own nascent NGO's so that they can become agents of change within the society. Yet this program of democracy promotion has had the unintended consequence of further reducing the political space for open debate in Iran. In this new climate of intimidation, NGO's and journalists are subject to censorship and are defensively engaging in self-censorship. Prominent Iranian activists, such as the Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, declared their opposition to the U.S. program because of continued sensitivity about foreign, particularly American, intrusion in Iran's domestic politics. The fact that the identity of Iranian recipients of U.S. aid is regarded as classified information by the U.S. government feeds the regime's paranoia and casts suspicion on all Iranian NGO's."

They suggest several fundamental shifts in U.S. policy including:

  • "Governments should talk to governments, while Iranian and American NGO's should be permitted to interact in a transparent fashion without the intrusion of governments. If the United States is to have any chance of enlisting Iranian cooperation on issues of major concern -- stabilizing Iraq and resolving the nuclear impasse -- it must make clear that its objective is a change in Iranian behavior, not a change of regime...Although such a U.S. assurance is no guarantee of success, it is the prerequisite for a change in Iranian foreign-policy behavior, as well as for positioning the United States to win multilateral support for meaningful action at the United Nations if Iranian intransigence continues."
  • "In tandem with a shift on the government-to-government level, the counterproductive democracy-promotion program aimed at Iranian NGO's should be scrapped in favor of a more permissive U.S. stance toward the operation of U.S. nonprofit organizations in Iran. "
  • "Another element of this revamped approach would be a new program of privately financed scholarships for Iranian students to study at American institutions of higher learning...The United States has a long-term interest in providing educational opportunities to Iran's successor generation of scholars, as well as in promoting the development of a new cadre of U.S. experts on Iran, a country that now commands so much of our attention."

The article concludes with a sobering admonition: "U.S. policy should be guided by a recognition that the ability of outside actors to influence that potentially long-term process is severely limited."

Both the Adminitration and Congress should heed these policy recommendations, particularly as it is offered by Prof. Esfandiari who recently returned from Iran after eight months of detention, four months of which were spent in solitary confinement in Evin Prison, on accusations of conspiring against the Iranian regime.

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