Monday, June 25, 2007

Is America's campaign to promote democracy in Iran counterproductive?

In a fascinating article in NYT, Negar Azimi shows how American plans to usher in democratic change have failed to achieve the desired results. Besides highlighting the fact that four Iranian-Americans are now under arrest on charges of supporting a "velvet revolution" in Iran, she gets some real incisive quotes. Like this one from Lee Hamilton, a former congressman who today serves as the president and director of the Woodrow Wilson Center, where Haleh Esfandiari - one of the four detainees - worked:

“The activities of the democracy fund should be an open book. What is important is the clear articulation of American foreign policy. Is it one of regime change or behavior change? We have to be crystal clear — that is an enormous difference.”

And goes on to add:

But this is precisely the distinction the Bush administration has continually failed to make. Ambiguity as to what the United States really wants from Iran seems to be built into the system. While the goals of the democracy fund may seem mild and the U.S. recently participated in rare talks with Iran, American aircraft carriers patrol the Persian Gulf, and five Iranian officials continue to be held incommunicado by U.S. forces in Iraq... The most painful paradox in all of this may be that neither Tajbakhsh nor Esfandiari received American democracy funds and, in fact, were critical of the American effort’s potential costs. Whether their arrests are a reflection of an internal battle between pro-engagement elements of the Khatami and Rafsanjani variety and those who are increasingly insular (notably Ahmadinejad) remains unclear. What is clearer, perhaps, is that the very public nature of the U.S. funds gave the Iranian government the perfect opportunity to send an unsubtle signal to the world about the potential cost of engagement.

She has also some comments from an Iranian who was invited to one conference organised by the fund for democratic change in Iran:

Emadeddin Baghi, who at that time was running a center for the defense of prisoners’ rights in Tehran, sent members of his family — including his wife and daughter — to Dubai. “I was under the impression that this was a U.N.-sponsored event and that it would work on basic human rights reporting and documentation,” he told me. “When the participants arrived, there was no trace of the U.N. And they had more in mind than reporting and documenting. We were lied to.”

Upon arrival, he said, participants were kept sequestered in small groups, housed in separate hotels across Dubai. Over three sets of sessions, they were not only given some basic human rights and health training but also a session on successful popular revolts in places like Serbia, conducted by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, a Washington-based group. At least two members of Otpor — the Serbian youth movement instrumental in ousting Slobodan Milosevic — were present. Portions of “A Force More Powerful,” a three-hour documentary series featuring civil-resistance movements overcoming authoritarian rule around the world, was also screened.

Further sessions included a lesson on how to use Hushmail (an encrypted e-mail account) and a secure open-source software called Martus designed to store information about human rights abuses. With the press of a single button, you can upload information to a server and erase any trace of the file from your computer. Each participant was given the software to take back to Tehran. One participant recently told me: “We were certain that we would have trouble once we went back to Tehran. This was like a James Bond camp for revolutionaries."


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