A Policy to Topple the Mullahs

By Kenneth R. Timmerman

FrontPageMagazine.com | February 16, 2006

[Ken's weekly column appears on Thursday]



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 it.

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, Iran Press News, 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 bombings.

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 bill.

"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 enough.

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 remain illegal.

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 non-violent protest.

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

Original article