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Democracy Promotion In Iran

Via Laura Rozen, Eli Lake writes about proposals to support pro-democracy groups in Iran. This is, no doubt, a worthy endeavor, though as its advocates seem to realize, it's a little tricky to see exactly how it can be pulled off. One thing worth keeping in mind that the enthusiasts about these schemes don't always seem to have a very sound grasp of is that, as Iranian journalist Farouz Farzami makes clear, the reform movement isn't what it once was (also via Laura). With that in mind, the other thing to remember is that these notions aren't a substitute for thinking about policies to cope with issues regarding Iranian WMD programs or Iranian interest in Iraqi political developments. Even if democracy-promotion does bear fruit, that fruit will likely arrive some time off, and realistically we need to deal with the actually existing regime on topics of present concern.

If you make democracy-promotion the strategy for dealing with the Iraq and nuclear questions then the risk is that you wind up both mishandling these issues and pushing too hard on the democracy front in ways that lead the plan to backfire. Iran and Iraq issues, never entirely separate, have become inextricably linked thanks to the invasion, and the Iranian government obviously isn't going to cooperate with any US policy in the Gulf region that's aimed at overthrowing it. But at the moment the US has a great deal at stake in Iraq policy and the Iranians hold an awful lot of cards.

November 28, 2004 | Permalink


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» Three Cheers for a Nuclear Iran? from Bradford Plumer
A commentator at Matt Yglesias' site asks about those "serious foreign policy thinkers" who think a nuclear Iran could be a good thing. I don't know who's touting this line, or what they're thinking, but here's how I think this sort of argument would... [Read More]

Tracked on Nov 28, 2004 3:02:42 AM

» They don't want our help -- Iranian nationalism is not to be messed with from Hunters Orange
Matthew Yglesias entertains a flawed idea: the idea that foreign powers or entities can help promote democracy in Iran, and that Iranians will accept this help. In a word, no. Iranians are members of a civilization that is older than [Read More]

Tracked on Nov 28, 2004 2:26:47 PM


The one thing we can depend on from Bush/Condi/Cheney/Rumsfeld is they will screw up Iranian policy and get many Americans and Iranians killed as a result.

Posted by: steve duncan | Nov 28, 2004 12:23:50 AM

The other important point to make is that even a democratic Iran may have nuclear ambitions that the US would not be comfortable with (see India, for example).

Posted by: Ravi | Nov 28, 2004 12:29:07 AM

Hey Matt,

A while back you dropped a bunch of hints that some serious foreign policy thinkers thought that a nuclear Iran wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, although no one wanted to go on the record as saying that for obvious reasons.

What was their line of reasoning for thinking it wouldn't be a bad thing?

Posted by: Petey | Nov 28, 2004 1:14:12 AM

I just hope this doesn't discredit reform entirely; being seen as too close to the Americans can get you in deep doo-doo over there.

Posted by: praktike | Nov 28, 2004 2:56:50 AM

Petey -- I can't speak for Matt or his serious foreign policy thinkers, but it's possible in theory that a nuclear Iran would make it easier for Washington to deal with Tehran on "realist" terms. Given how unpredictable the country is right now, that might not be a bad thing.

I've sketched out the full argument here. (Yeah, I'm a link whore. Deal with it!) It's not an airtight argument, but it's worth, um, "mulling".

Posted by: Brad Plumer | Nov 28, 2004 2:56:51 AM

Here's my good advice, absoutely free of charge: butt out of Iran (and other places) and stop talking of "democracy promotion" anywhere at least for the next ten years of so, you have no credibility at the moment. If you have to meddle, do it very discreetly and indirectly via third parties.

Tone down the aggressive rhetoric, and negotiate with Iran in good faith (if you can). Publicly renounce any plans to attack or interfere with Iran. That would go a long way to defuse the situation, - if they believed you, of course (not a given with your current regime). This policy would give intangible support to the reformers in Iran and help your economic prospects as well.

Same would probably be good advice for your stance towards North Korea.

Posted by: Messenger | Nov 28, 2004 3:00:19 AM

If any 'democracy promotion' plan these clowns come up with involves the Mujahideen e-Khalq, they can just kiss their credibility goodbye. I've already heard that they've recently been calling around to the Iranian community in the US looking for MEK sympathizers to fly in to stage a canned demonstration in DC.

The MEK was responsible for significant acts of domestic terrorism in Iran, and they are still hated by both the government and the public. Any ties with them, or attempts to leverage them to bring about political change, indicate a fundamental unseriousness about winning the trust of the Iranian public. It would be roughly equivalent to a foreign government working for change in the US political system through the members of Timothy McVeigh's old militia buddies.

Posted by: natasha | Nov 28, 2004 4:01:29 AM

Democracy promotion is a very tricky issue in the Middle East. Here in Egypt the USAID has tried to do a variety of different democracy promotion programs and has met with a lot of indirect success but very little direct evidence. First of all, the reformist or human rights oriented groups may also be very anti-American and may not wish to risk their street cred, as it were, by accepting American aid even if they are not anti-American. Second, even if they agree to accept American funding, people against reform can use the foreign funding issue as a hook to destroy their credibility, and that is exactly what they do. So the projects that work are very, very indirect. For example, things like strengthening the judiciary (a project I am working with right now). Or giving skills training to NGOs. Nothing directly concerned with the democratic process. As you may see if you look at it from the point of view of an American citizen, what would you react like if the French or someone else sent in funds to help us understand democracy or help us vote better or be better or more active citizens? Probably you would get irate. Well, citizens in developing countries do not like being condescended to either. So democracy promotion is a very, very difficult issue for the USG to get involved in and at most they have to support very indirect things like institution capacity building and the strengthening of various sectors through training, etc. |As for supporting reform groups in Iran directly, I don't know much about Iran and have not visited it but I imagine this would probably immediately backfire. Given the current state of relations between the two countries I doubt the average Iranian is looking for the US to come to his country and spend money making it more democratic. At best, I think it would be polite to say he'd be VERY suspicious of the USG motives.

Posted by: Anna in Cairo | Nov 28, 2004 6:38:05 AM

"Democracy promotion is a very tricky issue in the Middle East. Here in Egypt..."

Of course, it would be easier in Egypt than most places. We could simply withhold aid unless free and fair elections were held.

But American policy is to prefer Mubarak instead of Democracy...

Posted by: Petey | Nov 28, 2004 6:57:31 AM

Petey, if we withheld aid to egypt because they didn't hold free and fair elections, there's a good chance we'd lose most of our influence in egypt. This is probably not a good thing.

Think about the likely reaction in israel if we withheld aid to them. Same sort of thing.

Posted by: J Thomas | Nov 28, 2004 7:07:11 AM

"Petey, if we withheld aid to egypt because they didn't hold free and fair elections, there's a good chance we'd lose most of our influence in egypt. This is probably not a good thing."

No doubt.

But concerning our short term foreign interests, I think we prefer Mubarak to Democracy, separate of any other concerns about how to promote Democracy.

And thus any American efforts toward Democracy promotion in Egypt are fraught with a heavy level of insincerity and irony.

Posted by: Petey | Nov 28, 2004 7:25:27 AM

Yes, working on "democracy promotion" under the emergency law and the Mubarak regime is quite a joke, as you stated -- most Egyptians would laugh hysterically if you said that you worked for a "democracy-promoting" AID project. That's why we just call it "judicial reform" which everyone does agree is a very good thing (the average case in Egypt takes years and years to get through the court system and we are working on court automation, a relatively low-controversy type of thing). But you see that is the whole problem of "democracy promotion" -- you can only promote democracy where it already exists (like in Iran, where they do have hotly contested elections periodically). Therefore it is difficult to see what you can do in the case of Egypt short of calling for a coup of some sort. And as you correctly stated, the Egyptian regime is allied with the US.

Posted by: Anna in Cairo | Nov 28, 2004 8:41:19 AM

But it's not just Egypt where US policy is anti-democratic, it's all over the place: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Latin America, even Europe in the 60s.

And it's quite trivial, btw: the US government is pursuing perceived interests of its constituency which is the US ruling elite, so why would it care about democracy for the Egyptians or Iranians? If the Egyptians want democracy they'll have to get it in spite of the US efforts to pursue its interests.

This is another one of many silly "democracy promotion" topics here, this is just absurd: democracy promotion abroad is simply not a consideration for the US government and it can't be.

Something like Soros Foundation can do "democracy promotion", but not the US government or any national government for that matter. If a national government puts interests of foreigners before interests of its own constituency, than this government is a bunch of traitors.

All you can reasonably ask for from the US government is to try to avoid meddling with other nations' affairs - and you need to specifically clarify - because it'll in the end it'll likely to harm the US interests.

I just can't believe anyone would seriously discuss this kind of crap, it's as silly as seriously discussing the ways for the fox to guard the henhouse.

Posted by: abb1 | Nov 28, 2004 10:21:05 AM

Why do we care if Iran, Iraq, Egypt, etc. have democracy or some other form of government? Isn't that up to the people living there to decide? Our interests should be confined to the actions of those governments towards us and our few allies. I find it laughable to think that if only Iran were a democracy they wouldn't even consider terrorism as a tactic against us. Of course they would. Terrorism involves very small groups of people, relatively small sums of money, and little if any government assistance. Those who commit terrorist acts will not be constrained by a popular vote, majority sentiment, or any other democracy related action. So, I have to conclude that what is really at issue in Iran is opportunities for US businesses to make lots of money there.

Posted by: Vaughn Hopkins | Nov 28, 2004 11:00:55 AM

abb1 writes: If a national government puts interests of foreigners before interests of its own constituency, than this government is a bunch of traitors.

What, did you have a date with Ann Coulter last night?

You want to help her string up Bill Clinton for pursuing military action to save the lives of Kosovars? An area with very little strategic or economic significance - if any - to the U.S.?

If Bill Clinton had done what many had wished - especially in retrospect - and attempted to stop the slaughter in Rwanda, he would have been a traitor for it?

I mean, he put the lives of Kosovars ahead of Kenoshans - at least in your (and Pat Buchanan's) calculus, no?

Posted by: SoCalJustice | Nov 28, 2004 11:35:03 AM

what I am saying is that you can't expect a national government to act in the interests of foreigners and Rwanda is a proof of that.

Yes, Clinton did nothing which is exactly what one should've expected because the Rwandans aren't Clinton's constituency.

Had you - a US citizen - organized a mass- wide-spread campaign for a intervention in Rwanda, he might've done something. But you didn't, so he's done exactly what you wanted him to do wich is nothing. He was serving you (well, after his more important sponsors were satisfied, of course).

I can't tell you the exact equation that led to the intervention in Kosovo, but trust me - helping the poor Kosovans was on the bottom of the least of reasons if it was there at all.

Posted by: abb1 | Nov 28, 2004 11:59:08 AM

Sorry for the typos, it's 'the list of reasons' and so on. I am sure you can figure it out.

Posted by: abb1 | Nov 28, 2004 12:01:23 PM

Hazard a guess on Kosovo, then, at least?

Posted by: SoCalJustice | Nov 28, 2004 12:03:11 PM

abb1, what I am saying is that you can't expect a national government to act in the interests of foreigners and Rwanda is a proof of that.

I'm sorry, my bad.

I thought what you were saying is that if they did act to better the lives of foreigners (at least if that was their perceived goals) then they were traitors.

Posted by: SoCalJustice | Nov 28, 2004 12:04:38 PM

Well, some people would consider them traitors for sure. And they'd have a point.

Posted by: abb1 | Nov 28, 2004 12:10:20 PM

Some people like you, Ann Coulter and Pat Buchanan, to name a few.

Of course, I imagine you all have different opinions of what you consider to be in the best interests of the American people - but your answer for those that disagree with you is basically the same as theirs.

Posted by: SoCalJustice | Nov 28, 2004 12:12:52 PM


Absent a guess (or knowledge of the actual reason) on why Clinton intervened in Kosovo, you think he's a traitor for doing so?

Posted by: SoCalJustice | Nov 28, 2004 12:16:43 PM

Or is it that you personally don't think he's a traitor for intervening in Kosovo, but those that do think he is "have a point"?

Posted by: SoCalJustice | Nov 28, 2004 12:18:59 PM

I object to foreign interventions for the reasons different than they do (if they do, I don't know that much about them, especially Coulter) - and so what if they object to foreign interventions too? It doesn't make me the same as Coulter, just like you are not the same as David Horowitz even though you two will probably agree on something.

But in this case I am not even arguing against foreign interventions, all I'm saying is that you can't expect a government elected to pursue interests of its citizens to look after best interests of foreigners. It's just illogical, IMO.

Posted by: abb1 | Nov 28, 2004 12:26:58 PM

abb1, all I'm saying is that you can't expect a government elected to pursue interests of its citizens to look after best interests of foreigners.

Actually, no it's not all you are saying. You've backtracked completely.

Perhaps you didn't mean to, because you didn't think it through, but the premise you put forward, if you want to be consistent and not just selectively apply it to Presidents and politicians you hate, means that Bill Clinton must be a traitor to his nation for intervening in Kosovo, because I personally (along with most of Americans) dind't stage rallies demanding our govenment protect Pristina and Kosovo from Milosevic.

Posted by: SoCalJustice | Nov 28, 2004 12:32:57 PM

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