Fear and Loathing in Tehran
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The near-term outcome of U.S. democracy promotion has been a fierce backlash from the regime and a corresponding freeze of Iranian civil society, curtailing Iranians' ability to engage with international organizations or accept external support. For Washington, the losses from the current wave of repression are more profound than the new scarcity of Iranian participants for Track II dialogues and other exchanges. By fostering debate and channeling political activism, Iran's semi-governmental organizations and intellectuals have played a critical role in advancing its political evolution. The ongoing intimidation of Iranian civil society and academia means that these parts of society, that had improbably managed to thrive within the fierce political and cultural restrictions of the Islamic Republic are now under siege. This leaves a void in Iran's political life and in the organizational and ideational development of any future opposition movement.There is some merit in the administration's argument that the current round of repression is a predictable outcome of Iran's dogmatic leadership, particularly Ahmadinejad and his appointees. Still, the U.S. tendency to evade its own responsibility in exacerbating the regime's paranoia and inciting a new crackdown bodes poorly for the prospect that the administration will exercise prudence in navigating the minefields of Iranian politics.
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Among the array of U.S. diplomatic, military and financial tools for influencing Iran, democracy promotion is hardly the most consequential. But in its philosophy and implementation, the initiative is emblematic of the misconceptions and fallacies that have undermined the broader American effort to pressure Iran into abandoning its rogue behavior and to persuade its leadership to adopt a more constructive course. The historical baggage associated with any direct American role in Iranian civil society, prompted a crescendo of objections from a range of prominent Iranian activists and dissidents. Only weeks after Rice's $75 million request, renowned Iranian human-rights lawyer Abdolfattah Soltani told the Washington Post that the funding would have a "negative effect", and Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi described the initiative as "very dangerous to society." Noted dissident Mehrangiz Kar predicted with hard-gained prescience that the U.S. funding "will destroy these newly developed [civil-society] organizations like a storm." These admonitions were echoed by dissident and hunger-striker Akbar Ganji upon his March 2006 release from nearly six years in prison. "Political change in Iran is necessary, but it must not be achieved by foreign intervention", he declared.
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The U.S. democracy initiative is based on the faulty assumption of the Iranian regime's vulnerability. Although the administration generally concedes that democracy promotion is the work of generations, it is clear from the size of the program and the breathlessness of U.S. appeals to Iranians that a much faster timetable is intended. Anticipating the next revolution is a longtime Washington parlor game, and each new rumble of discontent from Tehran brings a new avalanche of headlines predicting the regime's imminent demise. These expectations, while faulty, are not entirely without foundation. Iran has all of the risk factors for a revolutionary break: a disproportionately young population; restive ethnic minorities; an inefficient, distorted economy; and a regime mired in an obsolescent ideology, riven by factional feuds and reliant on repression.But the focus on these weaknesses overlooks the unfortunate evidence that the Iranian regime retains enormous repressive capacity over society and appears to be firmly entrenched in power for the foreseeable future. Its track record is worth noting. The Islamic Republic has survived every, calamity short of the plague: war, isolation, instability, terrorist attacks, leadership transition, drought and epic earthquakes. This does not imply that the regime is impregnable, nor that its leaders view it as such. Rather, the endurance of Iran's revolutionary, regime through multiple crises is a testament to the adaptive capacity of the system and its leaders as well as to the lack of any viable alternative power center.