BY BLAISE MISZTAL
THE HILL, 5 January, 2018-- The recent eruption of protests in Iran has, predictably, split Washington in two, between those counseling silence and those urging vocal support. Both sides might think their approach best aids the protesters, but this debate about rhetoric of what the U.S. government should or shouldn’t say furthers neither the aspirations of the Iranian people nor the interests of the United States.
Proponents of silence worry that U.S. support will delegitimize the protests. But such concerns, when dealing with a totalitarian and mendacious regime, are misplaced. Dismissing opponents as foreign puppets is the oldest trick in the autocrat’s playbook.
Iran would and does accuse Washington of fomenting protests regardless of what U.S. policymakers say. While the Obama administration assiduously sought to stay out of a 2009 wave of protests that swept Iran, but Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s personal website nevertheless alleges they were a U.S. conspiracy. Similarly, Iran has already lodged complaints against the United States for inciting the current unrest.
But Iranians are not deciding the legitimacy of the protests, and whether they themselves should take part or not, on the basis of government propaganda. If they already harbor grievances against the regime, they are unlikely to be swayed by its pronouncements. Concern over lies that Tehran tells should hardly drive U.S. policy, rather encouraging and enabling Iranians to take their political destiny into their own hands should.
Yet, the most vocal U.S. supporters of the protests often save most of their rhetorical fire, and substantive recommendations, for attacking the regime. Denouncing the corruption and brutality of the Iranian leadership, however satisfying, is not an effective means of building momentum behind the demonstrations. The Iranian people do not need the United States to tell them of Tehran’s sins. They have lived those travails themselves.
U.S. policymakers must be careful not to mistake the protesters as the manifestation of their own desires for regime change in Iran. Their reasons for rising up, their demands, and their hopes are their own. Just as lack of U.S. support can condemn political movements to failure, as in Syria in 2011, overeagerness to assume mass mobilizations must share U.S. values and objectives can cast countries into chaos, as in Egypt in 2011.
To best support this fledgling political movement in Iran, the United States should provide it the tools to sustain itself in the face of suppression and ultimately grow into a democratic opposition. Statements of solidarity are important. The punitive measures against Iran’s leadership that have been suggested, such as the use of Global Magnitsky Act sanctions, can play a role in trying to dissuade the regime from further violence against protesters.
But what the demonstrators in Iran really need is what makes any political opposition successful: organizational skills, communications abilities, access to information and funding. Unfortunately, rhetorical pronouncements are easier and sanctions are cheaper than this sort of concrete assistance, funding for which has been repeatedly slashed.
In 2006, President George W. Bush’s administration called for an Iran Democracy Fund. Its purpose, according to then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, would be to “reach Iranian people through websites and modern technology… support nongovernmental organizations that can function in Iran, and… improve and increase our educational and cultural outreach to the people of Iran.” Bush’s initial request of $75 million was reduced by Congress to $66 million. Ironically, some of the greatest proponents of supporting Iranian democracy now, disparaged the program then.
The Obama administration, in 2009, changed the name of the program to the Near East Regional Democracy Fund and cut funding further, to about $30 million annually for most of its eight years in office. Those funds were never specifically earmarked for democracy assistance in Iran and could be used more broadly, but nevertheless, the program did important, if limited work, especially supporting internet freedom and offshore training of activists.
To provide concrete support to those in Iran who seek liberty, justice and accountability, President Trump should call for the return of the Iran Democracy Fund and Congress should immediately pass emergency appropriations at the level originally requested by President Bush. These should be specifically allocated to providing unfettered access to the internet and communications channels, broadcasting in Persian, and training and supporting civil society organizations inside Iran.
If the United States wants to support the Iranian people’s aspirations to a better life, it should put its money where its mouth is.
Blaise Misztal is director of national security at the Bipartisan Policy Center.