A Lever of Change in Iran

Last Thursday two dozen political activists and organizations signed a statement drafted by the National Iranian American Council calling on Congress to cut off Iranian civil society funding. The signatories -- who ranged from representatives of billionaire philanthropist George Soros to the group The World Can't Wait/Drive Out the Bush Regime-- argue that such funding, rather than aiding democracy, has precipitated an Iranian crackdown on dissidents. These political activists are wrong. Should democracy funding be cut, not only will independent civil society be eroded but a vital tool to encourage Iranian moderation will be removed, speeding the slide toward confrontation.

The federal money invested in Iranian civil society is minuscule, not enough even to build half a "Bridge to Nowhere." The congressional appropriation has grown from $1.4 million in 2004 to $66 million this year.

Of this, $36 million disappears into the coffers of Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. The State Department applies an additional $5 million each to visitor exchange programs and to translation of its Web sites into Persian. Only $20 million is available for Iranian democracy activists.

To blame democracy programs for Tehran's crackdown on dissidents, as opponents of the congressional funding have, is moral inversion.

Iranian authorities need little excuse to stifle dissent. In 1998 and 1999, the Iranian intelligence ministry coordinated a "serial killing" campaign against leading intellectuals. Revolutionary authorities shuttered several dozen newspapers before the Bush administration took office. Tehran's crackdown on Iranian bloggers began in 2004.

Nor do all Iranian dissidents see outside assistance as a kiss of death: Since December 2005, bus drivers in Tehran have struggled to organize the Islamic Republic's first independent trade union. For the past three months, their leader, Mansour Osanlou, has been in Tehran's Evin Prison. In an August radio interview, his wife pleaded for more outside support. Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa has spoken out, but neither President Bush nor any of the candidates seeking to succeed him have grasped this potential Gdansk shipyard moment.

Some Iranian reformers do condemn outside support. But this is no surprise. In Iran, reformers by definition seek to perfect theocracy, not implement democracy. When Iranian students rose in July 1999 to demand freedom of speech and assembly, the reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, supported their expulsion and incarceration. In the words of writer Laura Secor, the reformers are "the loyal opposition in a fascist state." To base U.S. strategy toward Iranian civil society upon those who seek to subordinate popular sovereignty to unelected clerics is like filtering efforts to protect Darfur refugees through their Janjaweed oppressors.

Recent efforts to end democracy funding have been sparked by the arrests this year of four Iranian American scholars accused of seeking a "velvet revolution." Tehran's actions were widely condemned and show how little confidence the Iranian regime has in its own population. They also demonstrate how effective democracy support can be. Popular regimes don't panic over ineffective programs and incarcerate 67-year-old grandmothers for months.

The National Iranian American Council has suggested that, rather than encourage civil society, Washington should support more cultural exchange. In practice, this gives Tehran veto power. The regime constrains cultural exchange with the same fervor with which it limits discourse. At the height of Iran's "Dialogue of Civilizations," the State Department offered Iranian passport holders 22,000 visas; by contrast, the Iranian Foreign Ministry issued U.S. passport holders only 800 visas, limiting their issuance to those whom Tehran deemed sympathetic to its positions.

The Islamic Republic doesn't like ideological or political competition. Neither, apparently, does the NIAC. As the group lobbies to cut off funding of programs meant to foster Iranian civil society, it has accepted a six-figure grant from the National Endowment for Democracy to train Iranian nongovernmental organizations, perhaps those less threatening to the Islamic Republic. The NIAC's leader, who often trades on his access to Iranian authorities, should explain why it is okay for him, but not his competitors, to accept such money.

Successful democracy promotion must have teeth. As tensions rise between Washington and Tehran over the Islamic Republic's nuclear program, Congress should work to avoid escalation to military conflict. An Islamic Republic accountable to its own citizenry would invest in better schools, hospitals, wages and infrastructure, and it would not divert billions for uranium enrichment and ballistic missiles. Empowering Iranian civil society presents the best hope to avert military escalation or a nuclear Iran. The last thing Congress should do is narrow the remaining policy options by de-funding support for Iranian democracy.

Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author, with Patrick Clawson, of "Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos".