Dissecting and analyzing what passes for news in the New York Times can be a full-time job. (The estimable Hilton Kramer used to do precisely that for the New York Post.) I generally try to steer clear of doing it, for fear of getting nothing else accomplished. But a longish piece that appeared this Sunday in the New York Times magazine cries out for a critical reading.
The article, “Hard Realities of Soft Power,” is by Negar Azimi, identified as an “editor at Bidoun, a cultural magazine based in New York City.” (Bidoun’s website provides further information: she is a 2001 Stanford graduate and a current Harvard grad student who spent a few years living in Cairo.) Its premise is summarized in a lengthy subtitle: “The United States has dedicated tens of millions of dollars to promoting democracy in Iran. But for Iranian democrats and America alike, the effort may be more trouble than it’s worth.”
This “may” is a bit coy: the article itself makes clear that, in the author’s opinion, American support for democracy promotion is counterproductive. Its only result, she implies, is to get Iranian reformers into trouble with a regime intensely suspicious of external subversion, and to undermine the reformers’ credibility.
In one of the article’s more dubious conceits, Azimi even links an increase in U.S. funding for democracy promotion in Iran—Congress budgeted $75 million for this fiscal year, up from just a few million in the past—to the increased repression of the regime, including the detention of four Iranian-Americans on risible charges of spying. Deep in the article, Azimi actually undercuts this argument when she notes that there is nothing exactly new about the Islamic Republic of Iran cracking down on perceived threats to its authority: “The postrevolutionary regime has been attacking its domestic opponents as Western lackeys for 27 years.”
Indeed. Even back in 1979, the Iranian hardliners were determined to believe that the U.S. was plotting against their revolution from our embassy, which they dubbed a “Den of Spies.” No such plot existed, but it didn’t stop the Islamofascists in Tehran then or now from using such suspicions as a convenient cudgel against anyone they don’t like. And if the recent arrests are linked to increased American efforts at democracy promotion, it may confirm that the U.S. program makes sense. If the Iranian regime is so afraid of such pressure, shouldn’t we keep the squeeze on?
But in truth we have no real idea why the Iranian-Americans—and many others, such as the fifteen British sailors seized in March and subsequently released—have been arrested recently. It may well be a show of Iranian muscle-flexing aimed at deterring the U.S. from pressing too hard not only on regime change, but on Iran’s nuclear weapons program and its support of terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The decision-making processes of the Iranian regime remain opaque, so it’s a bit of a stretch to blame the latest repression on the actions of the United States Congress or the State Department. The real culprit here is the odious nature of the Iranian regime.
And it’s absurd to complain, as Azimi does, that the American program hasn’t borne any fruit; it’s just getting started. (Only in the past year, for example, has the Voice of America increased its Farsi programming from one hour a night to five hours.) Democracy-promotion is a long-term enterprise and can’t be expected to reap overnight results.
There is no question that the obstacles to overthrowing the mullahs—obstacles that Azimi amply highlights—are such that we may never succeed. But what’s the alternative? Negar doesn’t explore that in her article. But the usual alternative cited in Washington circles is outreach to, and accommodation with, the Iranian regime—the essence of the Baker-Hamilton Commission’s thinking. And how likely is that to work?
Two of the Iranian-Americans now languishing in Iranian prison, ironically, are advocates of this approach. They were against regime change and received no money from the U.S. democracy promotion funds. According to Azimi, one of them (Haleh Esfandiari, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center) even “declined offers to appear on Voice of America, for fear of being tied to an American agenda.” Their shabby treatment indicates what the mullahs think of well-intentioned (if deeply naïve) attempts to find common ground between the Iranian government and the Great Satan.
This was, incidentally, precisely the point that Reuel Gerecht made a month ago in a New York Times op-ed. Perhaps Negar’s editors should have been paying closer attention to what their paper’s op-ed page has to say.