November 8, 2007

Did State Kill The Iran Democracy Project?

A decision by the State Department to transfer funds for Iranian democracy activists to its Iranian Affairs office spells the end of the American effort to support democratic change in the Islamic Republic, its former director said. Scott Carpenter, in an interview with Eli Lake of the New York Sun, says that the end of independent operation of this project signals that the money will no longer support efforts to get past Internet censors and other means of information reporting that is critical to the success of democratic movements:

The former director of President Bush's flagship democracy program for the Middle East is saying that the State Department has "effectively killed" a program to disburse millions of dollars to Iran's liberal opposition.

In an interview yesterday, Scott Carpenter said a recent decision to move the $75 million annual aid program for Iranian democrats to the State Department's Office of Iranian Affairs would effectively neuter an initiative the president had intended to spur democracy inside the Islamic Republic.

"In my view, this pretty much kills the Iran democracy program," Mr. Carpenter said of the decision by the State Department to subsume the program. "There is not the expertise, there is not the energy for it. The Iran office is worried about the bilateral policy. I think they are not committed to this anymore."

Mr. Carpenter, who headed the Middle East Partnership Initiative and was a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs until he left the Bush administration this summer, predicted the $20 million devoted to supporting the activities inside the Islamic Republic would be relegated to what he called "safe initiatives" such as student exchange programs, and not the more daring projects he and his deputy, David Denehy, funded, such as training for Web site operators to evade Internet censorship, political polling, and training on increasing recruitment for civil society groups.

Lake notes that this transfer comes at a time when the Bush administration is considering its diplomatic options with Iran regarding Iraqi security. Some of the captured Quds forces have been released, and at the same time American commanders have noticed a slowdown in the number of Iranian-manufactured copper disks used for EFPs by terrorists. The Iraqis have pressed the Iranians to end their support for the militias, and they appear to be responding, at least in part.

The money has generated controversy in the past, especially this year. One of the most prominent democracy activists, Akbar Ganji, wrote in a recent Washington Post column that the money should stop coming directly to the activists. It brands them as spies and traitors, Ganji explained, and ruins their credibility as Iranian patriots who only want freedom. However, Ganji did want the US to amplify its communications to the Iranian people, putting that money into efforts to get around the Iranian censors and get truth and vital information to Iranians.

This step by State appears headed in the wrong direction. Carpenter makes some assumptions about where the money will go, but he's probably not far off. The Radio Farda and VOA Farsi service have not been terribly effective, mostly because they see themselves as analogs to American radio stations -- entertaining first and foremost, instead of the vanguard of truth to their listeners. The program needs refocusing, and not just for Iran. It needs more resources and some enthusiasm from the Bush administration.

The most effective way to end oppressive governments is to show their subjects just how completely the oppressors lie to maintain power. It takes a lot longer to do that than to bomb, but in the end it's much more effective. The end of the Iron Curtain came through economic warfare and the fax machine. We seem to have forgotten the critical data effort that helped sweep the Soviet Union into the dustbin of history. If the cash can't be given to the Iranians, and Ganji makes a good case for that, then it needs to get applied to a robust information system on which Ganji and his compatriots can rely for support.


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