The good news is that the Bush administration has finally understood that talking about freedom is not enough. The United States must devote serious assets to helping pro-democracy forces inside Iran, if there is to be any hope of a long-term resolution to the nuclear crisis with Iran.
The bad news is that after
all these years, the administration still has no plan of how to do
Secretary of State
Condoleeza Rice asked Congress yesterday for an extra $75 million to
enhance radio and television broadcasting into Iran and to support
pro-democracy forces inside Iran. But she couldn't say with any
precision, either during an open hearing with members of the Senate
Foreign Relations committee, or in a private briefing later that day,
how she wanted to spend the money.
The new money comes on top
of a $3 million appropriation for 2005, mandated by Congress, to help
pro-democracy activitists inside Iran.
But State Department
bureaucrats last year torpedoed specific grant proposals (including
one by the Foundation
for Democracy in Iran,
which I represent), to help groups inside Iran. They argued that
helping such groups would be seen by the Tehran regime as a hostile
act and would violate the terms of the 1981 Algiers Accord that ended
the 444-day hostage crisis. Mustn't make Tehran angry.
Since then, of course, the
showdown over Iran's nuclear weapons programs has intensified, as has
the regime's repression of pro-democracy activists, unpaid miners,
and striking bus drivers. According to an opposition website,
political prisoners were told by their jailors this week that "each
and every one of you will be put to death" if Iran's nuclear file is
taken to the United Nations Security Council.
On Monday, 500 Sufi Muslims
were arrested in Qom after they protested the closing of a Sufi
religious center. Among them were 250 women and children.
Also this week, Ahmadinejad
"wondered out loud" why the regime protects foreign embassies in
Tehran, while the commander of the "Lovers of Martyrdom headquarters"
in Tehran told supporters that Iran will vanquish the United States,
Israel and our supporters through a protected campaign of suicide
Looks like we've made
Tehran angry nonetheless. And yet, the United States still doesn't
appear to have a plan.
Senators Sam Brownback, R-KS, and Rick Santorum, R-PA, have proposed increasing funding for pro-democracy groups in Iran to $10 million this year. But until just yesterday, the State Department was opposing the Iran Freedom Support Act because the House version of the bill expanded mandatory U.S. sanctions to include European companies. The State Department argued that we mustn't make the Europeans angry, especially when we need their votes at the IAEA and at the UN Security Council.
Finally, it appears, Miss
Rice got angry. Or just stepped in and took charge. No administration
likes Congress to tell it how to craft policy, although that is
exactly what's been happening with Iran since Congress first
threatened sanctions in 1995.
"I want to thank the
Congress for giving us $10 million to support the cause of freedom
and human rights in Iran this year," she said on Wednesday. So much
for lifting the State Department block on the Brownback-Santorum
"We will use this money to
develop support networks for Iranian reformers, political dissidents
and human rights activists," she said. "We also plan to request $75
million in supplemental funding for the year 2006 to support
democracy in Iran. That money would enable us to increase our support
for democracy and improve our radio broadcasting, begin satellite
television broadcasts, increase the contacts between our peoples
through expanded fellowships and scholarships for Iranian students,
and to bolster our public diplomacy efforts."
All of this sounds
encouraging, until you realize that the only part of the program that
has any substance are existing Persian language broadcasts by the
Voice of America and by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. And these
broadcasts are themselves problematic.
First, VOA. While the Voice
of America has tremendous talent, and has made serious efforts over
the past year to expand its programming in Persian and make it more
professional, VOA remains a U.S. government news source.
This can be an advantage,
when the U.S. government speaks with one voice to deliver a powerful
message. But more frequently it has been a disadvantage, since VOA's
charter does not allow it to actively subvert foreign governments.
And that is precisely what we need in Iran.
In addition, VOA is turning
away from radio programming to more expensive television broadcasts,
which it intends to "simulcast" over its old radio frequencies. VOA
will add one hour a day of short wave broadcasting later this year,
in an effort to reach a less urban audience, but that is not
The problem here is Iran's
poverty. Despite fabulous oil revenues, the World Bank estimates that
Iran's per capital income is around $2,000 per year. The audiences we
need to reach do not all have access to television. And periodically,
the regime conducts massive seizures of satellite dishes, which
We need more radio,
especially short-wave, and programming that is geared to informing
the Iranian people just how corrupt and brutal are their leaders, and
that teaches them the mechanics of political organizing and
In principle, Radio Free
Europe/Radio Liberty could do this. But its Persian service, Radio
Farda ("tomorrow"), has become an open object of ridicule to
Iranians. Established in 1997, it became known as "Radio Khatami,"
because it openly supported the "reformist" regime of the previous
Iranian president, Mohammad Khatami. More recently, it has become
irrelevant, playing Brittney Spear and other non-entities in hopes of
attracting a younger audience, while splicing in just ten minutes of
political programming each hour.
To her credit, Miss Rice
seems instinctively to grasp the problem. We need to shut down Radio
Farda, help VOA to produce quality radio programs in addition to TV
talk shows, and hand over more money to Iranian broadcasters in Los
Angeles and elsewhere who have their finger on the pulse of the
people inside Iran.
Just as Miss Rice was
testifying before Congress, a team of State Department officials was
visiting Iranian-American broadcasters in Los Angeles to assess which
programs might be worthy of U.S. support. My opinion: let a thousand
flowers bloom. The Iranian-American broadcasters know how to craft
their own programming. What they need is money to buy satellite time
to beam into Iran, and short-wave transmitters to reach the broader
population. We should give it to them.
The real question remains
the one the State Department avoided last year: what type of programs
should the U.S. be supporting inside Iran? And are we prepared for
Tehran's angry response, which could come in the form of a large
number of small suicide packages?
The pro-democracy groups
are out there. And they are chaffing at the bit. They know what to do
and can't wait to get started.
Anyone ready to overthrow a regime?
Copyright©2006, Kenneth R. Timmerman