The good news is that theBush administration has finally understood that talking about freedomis not enough. The United States must devote serious assets tohelping pro-democracy forces inside Iran, if there is to be any hopeof a long-term resolution to the nuclear crisis with Iran.
The bad news is that afterall these years, the administration still has no plan of how to doit.
Secretary of StateCondoleeza Rice asked Congress yesterday for an extra $75 million toenhance radio and television broadcasting into Iran and to supportpro-democracy forces inside Iran. But she couldn't say with anyprecision, either during an open hearing with members of the SenateForeign Relations committee, or in a private briefing later that day,how she wanted to spend the money.
The new money comes on topof a $3 million appropriation for 2005, mandated by Congress, to helppro-democracy activitists inside Iran.
But State Departmentbureaucrats last year torpedoed specific grant proposals (includingone by the Foundationfor Democracy in Iran,which I represent), to help groups inside Iran. They argued thathelping such groups would be seen by the Tehran regime as a hostileact and would violate the terms of the 1981 Algiers Accord that endedthe 444-day hostage crisis. Mustn't make Tehran angry.
Since then, of course, theshowdown over Iran's nuclear weapons programs has intensified, as hasthe regime's repression of pro-democracy activists, unpaid miners,and striking bus drivers. According to an opposition website,IranPress News,political prisoners were told by their jailors this week that "eachand every one of you will be put to death" if Iran's nuclear file istaken to the United Nations Security Council.
On Monday, 500 Sufi Muslimswere arrested in Qom after they protested the closing of a Sufireligious center. Among them were 250 women and children.
Also this week, Ahmadinejad"wondered out loud" why the regime protects foreign embassies inTehran, 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 suicidebombings.
Looks like we've madeTehran angry nonetheless. And yet, the United States still doesn'tappear to have a plan.
Senators Sam Brownback, R-KS, and Rick Santorum, R-PA, have proposedincreasing funding for pro-democracy groups in Iran to $10 millionthis year. But until just yesterday, the State Department wasopposing the Iran Freedom Support Act because the House version ofthe bill expanded mandatory U.S. sanctions to include Europeancompanies. The State Department argued that we mustn't make theEuropeans angry, especially when we need their votes at the IAEA andat the UN Security Council.
Finally, it appears, MissRice got angry. Or just stepped in and took charge. No administrationlikes Congress to tell it how to craft policy, although that isexactly what's been happening with Iran since Congress firstthreatened sanctions in 1995.
"I want to thank theCongress for giving us $10 million to support the cause of freedomand human rights in Iran this year," she said on Wednesday. So muchfor lifting the State Department block on the Brownback-Santorumbill.
"We will use this money todevelop support networks for Iranian reformers, political dissidentsand human rights activists," she said. "We also plan to request $75million in supplemental funding for the year 2006 to supportdemocracy in Iran. That money would enable us to increase our supportfor democracy and improve our radio broadcasting, begin satellitetelevision broadcasts, increase the contacts between our peoplesthrough expanded fellowships and scholarships for Iranian students,and to bolster our public diplomacy efforts."
All of this soundsencouraging, until you realize that the only part of the program thathas any substance are existing Persian language broadcasts by theVoice of America and by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. And thesebroadcasts are themselves problematic.
First, VOA. While the Voiceof America has tremendous talent, and has made serious efforts overthe past year to expand its programming in Persian and make it moreprofessional, 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 powerfulmessage. But more frequently it has been a disadvantage, since VOA'scharter does not allow it to actively subvert foreign governments.And that is precisely what we need in Iran.
In addition, VOA is turningaway from radio programming to more expensive television broadcasts,which it intends to "simulcast" over its old radio frequencies. VOAwill add one hour a day of short wave broadcasting later this year,in an effort to reach a less urban audience, but that is notenough.
The problem here is Iran'spoverty. Despite fabulous oil revenues, the World Bank estimates thatIran's per capital income is around $2,000 per year. The audiences weneed to reach do not all have access to television. And periodically,the regime conducts massive seizures of satellite dishes, whichremain illegal.
We need more radio,especially short-wave, and programming that is geared to informingthe Iranian people just how corrupt and brutal are their leaders, andthat teaches them the mechanics of political organizing andnon-violent protest.
In principle, Radio FreeEurope/Radio Liberty could do this. But its Persian service, RadioFarda ("tomorrow"), has become an open object of ridicule toIranians. Established in 1997, it became known as "Radio Khatami,"because it openly supported the "reformist" regime of the previousIranian president, Mohammad Khatami. More recently, it has becomeirrelevant, playing Brittney Spear and other non-entities in hopes ofattracting a younger audience, while splicing in just ten minutes ofpolitical programming each hour.
To her credit, Miss Riceseems instinctively to grasp the problem. We need to shut down RadioFarda, help VOA to produce quality radio programs in addition to TVtalk shows, and hand over more money to Iranian broadcasters in LosAngeles and elsewhere who have their finger on the pulse of thepeople inside Iran.
Just as Miss Rice wastestifying before Congress, a team of State Department officials wasvisiting Iranian-American broadcasters in Los Angeles to assess whichprograms might be worthy of U.S. support. My opinion: let a thousandflowers bloom. The Iranian-American broadcasters know how to crafttheir own programming. What they need is money to buy satellite timeto beam into Iran, and short-wave transmitters to reach the broaderpopulation. We should give it to them.
The real question remainsthe one the State Department avoided last year: what type of programsshould the U.S. be supporting inside Iran? And are we prepared forTehran's angry response, which could come in the form of a largenumber of small suicide packages?
The pro-democracy groupsare out there. And they are chaffing at the bit. They know what to doand can't wait to get started.
Anyone ready to overthrow aregime?
Copyright©2006, Kenneth R. Timmerman