In February 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “We are going to work to support the aspirations of the Iranian people for freedom in their own country.” She requested, and was granted, $75 million dollars to be put toward the effort. What became known as the “Democracy fund” for Iran was routinely slammed as unnecessarily confrontational by critics of robust democracy promotion.
Realists, isolationists, and simple Obamatons can proceed as cautiously as they like, but there’s reason to believe that the Bush administration’s “meddling” may have played some role in the revolt we see today. Consider this June 2007 New York Times magazine article’s account of a U.S.-funded Iranian “human rights workshop” held in Dubai:
Over three sets of sessions, [Iranians] 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.”
Today, organized youth movements and Internet technology are at the very core of the Iranian protests. This workshop was held in early 2005, when the State Deparment’s budget for democracy promotion in Iran was closer to $1 million than $75 million. With Condoleezza Rice’s request granted a year later, it’s not hard to see how the Dubai model could have been expanded.
The outcry from the anti-Bush crowd began to chip away slightly at the sums allocated for democracy promotion in Iran. By 2008, $60 million was “made available to promote democracy, the rule of law, and governance in Iran.” That’s $15 million less than the high point, but still tens of millions more than the amount that went into the “James Bond camp for revolutionaries.”
For the past few years we’ve spent hundreds of millions promoting democracy in Iran only to have President Barack Obama sit on his hands when Iranians take to the streets to demand it themselves. There’s something tragically familiar in this. In the early 1950s President Eisenhower encouraged Hungarians to fight back against their Soviet oppressors. As Ralph Peters puts it in today’s New York Post, “When they did, we watched from the sidelines as Russian tanks drove over them.” On February 15, 1991, about a week before the Gulf War ceasefire, President George H.W. Bush said on Voice of America radio: “There is another way for the bloodshed to stop: And that is, for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside and then comply with the United Nations’ resolutions and rejoin the family of peace-loving nations.” Weeks later, Iraqi Kurds and Shiites rose up. While they were crushed and executed en masse by Saddam, President Bush played down the significance of the conflict and distanced the U.S. from the revolutionaries. The anger this seeded in the Iraqi population came back at the U.S. in spades when Saddam’s regime could no longer be mollified.
The problem is not that the U.S. “meddles.” It’s that it meddles until it doesn’t. And that not only creates distrust among hopeful peoples around the world; it leaves conflicts festering until such time that their resolution is both critical and formidably difficult. If the situation in Iran passes quietly from uprising to mourning, don’t think we won’t have created a whole new army of burned former allies.