Monday, April 18, 2005

Supporting Democracy in Iran

As Iran's theocratic regime continues to support terrorism and develop the capability to build nuclear weapons, popular unrest against the mullahcracy continues to grow. Until now, the Bush Administration has confined itself to offering rhetorical support to the pro-democracy forces in Iran. Fortunately, this seems to be changing.

On April 11, USA Today reported some very encouraging news:

For the first time in a quarter-century of estrangement from Iran, the Bush administration is openly preparing to spend government funds in that country to promote democracy.

Congress has appropriated $3 million, and the State Department is inviting proposals from "educational institutions, humanitarian groups, non-governmental organizations and individuals inside Iran to support the advancement of democracy and human rights," according to an announcement posted Friday on the Web site of the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

Although the amount is small — and Iran's government may try to bar Iranians from accepting funds — the move is a significant departure for the United States, which by policy and treaty has not publicly sought to funnel money into Iran for such a purpose in 25 years.

(link courtesy of Harry's Place)

Such pro-democracy assistance from the US played an important role in the success of Kyrgyzstan's "Tulip Revolution". As Michael Ledeen and Peter Ackerman pointed out in an April 13th piece, it will be vital in supporting the spread of democracy in the Middle East:

In Iran and Lebanon, and probably in Syria, the prerequisites for democratic revolution are in place. Opposition groups in Iran are united in their call for free elections, perhaps preceded by a national referendum that will either legitimize or reject the theocratic state. In Lebanon, 1 million people just demonstrated their support for the quick removal of the Syrian occupiers.

Now the West needs to help. The lessons learned in Georgia and Ukraine need to be passed along. Indeed, this information is so important that Western governments should provide funding so that it can be broadcast around the clock.

The activists will need to communicate with one another, and the West can provide them with suitable equipment--satellite phones, text messaging, laptops and servers--that they may not be able to get by themselves. Just as the West provided Solidarity and Soviet dissidents with fax machines during the Cold War, we should help contemporary dissidents get the best tools available.

The people using nonviolent tactics--sit-ins, blockades and strikes, along with protests--must include workers, shopkeepers, and others who, unlike students, have their livelihoods at risk. They will be reluctant to walk off their jobs unless they know their families will not starve as a result. The West should follow Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's example: In the months leading up to his seizure of power in 1979 he smuggled thousands of sacks of rice into Iran to feed his supporters.

Finally, outsiders seeking to aid democratic revolutions must remember this: Only indigenous forces can be the prime movers. There must be no replay of 1953 in Iran, when the United States and Britain stage-managed mass demonstrations against the government in order to restore the shah to his throne. We must trust the judgment of the people who are, in all cases, the foundation of lasting change.

If they want open support, they should get it. If they want it delivered discreetly, donors should respect their wishes.

Helping the pro-democracy forces succeed in Iran is not just a "feel good" exercise: it is in the vital interests of the United States. Let's hope the $3 million is merely a downpayment.


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