By William Fisher
President Bush’s 180-degree turn on direct negotiations with Iran clearly represents a defeat for the super-hawks who have been urging military action – and arguably an act of desperation for an administration that has run out of good options.
But, if Iran should decide to come to the table, the US will find itself negotiating over Iran’s nuclear program at the same time it is stepping up its “soft power” efforts to “democratize” the country through broadcasting, cultural exchanges, and support for dissident political parties, labor unions and human rights organizations.
Such pro-democracy efforts, however, are seen by many experts as nothing more than euphemisms for regime change, and question whether such programs are likely to help or hinder the nuclear negotiations.
But equally important are questions about the content and effectiveness of such programs as well as how committed the Administration is to a pro-democracy agenda.
As to credibility and commitment, the potential of soft-power initiatives must be measured against the backdrop of what many in Iran (and elsewhere) see as the hypocrisies and contradictions of US foreign policy. America’s credibility as the world's champion of human rights has been diminished by such issues as the invasion of Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, renditions, excessive secrecy, and what appears through Middle East eyes to be a U.S. policy blindly tilted in favor of Israel. And, as evidenced by its dealings with countries like Egypt, Libya, and Saudi Arabia, the Bush Administration has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to abandon its democracy agenda in favor of recruiting partners for the "Global War on Terror" and cultivating cozy relationships with energy-rich countries, even if they are ruled by dictators.
As to the effectiveness of the “soft power” initiatives currently being implemented or discussed, the situation is even murkier and more complex.
After the 1978 Islamic Revolution in Iran – the hostage-taking and the end of US-Iran diplomatic relations -- the US effectively ignored that country. Iran did not again become a priority for the US Government until 2003, when some of our officials awakened to the reality that Iran was next door to Iraq, and thus positioned to do good or mischief. It was mooted that there would be discussions between the Iranian Government and US Ambassador to Iraq, but as far as we know, this never happened.
What did happen was that President Bush – at the urging of Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice – decided that using the Europeans as surrogate negotiators simply wasn’t working, and that the US needed to participate in direct negotiations over the nuclear issue.
In the months during which Bush’s major policy change was being battled out within the Administration, the State Department was already tooling up for a renaissance of “public diplomacy” directed toward Iran. This planning started from a baseline of almost zero.
Before the nuclear issue exploded onto the world stage, there was limited support for aid to émigré groups by conservative Republican lawmakers such as Sen. Rick Santorum, and anti-Iran organizations such as the American-Israel Public Affairs Council (AIPAC). Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, a Christian Right ally of the neo-conservatives, introduced the "Iran Democracy Act" that sets as US policy the goal of "an internationally monitored referendum to allow the Iranian people to peacefully change their system of government."
But their efforts only succeeded in extracting a paltry $3 million from Congress, $1 million of which was granted to a single US-based NGO known as the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. Its mission was to document human rights violations committed in Iran since the 1979 revolution.
At the same time, the large Iranian émigré community in Los Angeles continued to press for government support of private US-based broadcasting services and for pro-democracy groups inside Iran. Some in the administration, however, were gun-shy about supporting émigré groups, recalling that that's how we got Mr. Chalabi and his pal, Curveball.
But well before the current nuclear issue became a daily page-one story, a growing sense of urgency about Iran had landed at the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees all US foreign broadcasting efforts. The BBG’s current budget for Persian broadcasting through the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe is approximately $14.7 million.
So, back in 2003, the BBG's controversial Republican chairman, Kenneth Tomlinson, called Washington from a board meeting in Prague to urgently order the Voice of America's main Persian-language television show to go daily from once a week. In the fall of 2004, Tomlinson persuaded then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to push for funding that would allow VOA to boost its Persian-language television programming from just nine original hours per week to 28 per week.
But today, the State Department’s vision for the immediate future is far more ambitious. Dr. Rice has asked Congress for another $75 million to implement an ambitious three-pronged strategy involving:
Expanding independent radio and television, with some $50 million allocated to establishing round-the-clock, Farsi-language television in tandem with current foreign nonstop radio broadcasts;
Funding pro-democracy groups, an initiative that would require lifting the current ban on US financing of Iran-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), trade unions, human rights groups, and opposition candidates. Most of the money was to go to organizations based outside of Iran but with direct ties to eligible groups and people inside the country to protect their identity;
Boosting cultural and education fellowships and exchanges to help pay Iranian students and scholars to enroll in US universities. During the 1970s, there were 200,000 Iranian students in the United States, Rice told Congress; today that figure has plummeted to around 2,000.
These funds have been approved by congressional appropriators, but the issue has not come up for a floor vote yet. Meanwhile, the State Department has already begun to implement this more robust Iran strategy. For example, it has created an Iran desk. Last year, only two people in the department worked full time on Iran; now there will be 10. The department is also launching more training in the Farsi language and is planning an Iranian career track, which will be difficult without an embassy in Tehran. And the Office of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) is seeking proposals for grant applications that support democratic governance and reform in Iran.
But, realistically, there are major components of this Iran strategy that the US Government simply cannot implement.
Current law would have to be changed to allow direct support for labor unions, opposition political parties, and dissident NGOs within Iran. More important, the US Government cannot “empower civil society” – without landing the recipients in jail.
It can work to increase the number of Iranian students enrolled in US colleges and universities – a number that has fallen from 200,000 in the 1970s to 2,000 since the attacks of September 11th 2001. But this will not be easy. US visa restrictions represent one obstacle. Another is the absence of a US Embassy in Tehran, which means prospective students have to travel to locations outside Iran in order to apply for US visas. And while increasing the number of visiting students is a time-tested and successful effort, it is a very long-term proposition.
So, if many of the more ambitious visions of what the State Department can do are off the table, what’s left is broadcasting, which is why two-thirds of the $75 million request will be spent to increase Farsi-language television and radio broadcasting into Iran.
This involves expanding existing Persian-language television and radio programs directly financed by American taxpayers, such as shows produced by the Persian desk of Voice of America in Washington. VOA would share roughly $30 million of the emergency funding with Radio Farda, a joint effort of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America.
Radio Farda produces fresh news and information at least twice an hour, with longer news programming in the morning and the evening. It also broadcasts a combination of popular Persian and Western music, operating 24 hours a day on medium wave digital audio satellite and on the Internet, as well as 21 hours a day on shortwave. It claims to receive 100 emails daily from its Internet service.
VOA also broadcasts daily half-hour satellite TV news programs. Although it is illegal to own a satellite dish in Iran, an estimated 15 million Iranians are believed to have access to satellite TV. But because of the difficulty of surveying the Iranian public, US officials do not know how many actually tune in.
This month, VOA’S popular Persian-language Mizegerdi ba Shoma (Roundtable With You) program will expand to a new daily schedule, broadcasting 60 minutes a day. The radio-TV simulcast has been broadcast weekly for 90 minutes for nearly a decade.
How effective have US-funded broadcasts been in Iran?
The impact has been mixed, experts say. While less than five percent of Iranians who listen to foreign broadcasts tune into VOA, Radio Farda appears to have had more success. The 24-hour news and music station is the third-most important conduit of information in Iran after local television and radio (excluding print media), according to an April-May 2005 survey commissioned by the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors.
Another survey – carried out by telephoning Iranian phone numbers and asking the person on the other end whether he/she listens to Radio Farda -- put the number of adult listeners per week at 13.6 percent of the adult population. But sponsors of the survey acknowledge that it is not clear “how many Iranians will speak honestly with a complete stranger who has telephoned them out of the blue?”
Is the new effort worth $75 million in taxpayer funds?
John Brown, a former Foreign Service Officer and now a professor of public diplomacy at Georgetown University, supports the new public-diplomacy effort but says it may be too little, too late. “We should have started ages ago,” he says. “Now we’re playing catch-up."
Brown adds, “I think that public diplomacy efforts in Iran are bound to fail unless our policies drastically change. After all, Persians weren't exactly ‘born yesterday’ and pop songs or even ‘serious’ discussions about values on the air are not going to change people's mindsets.”
Lionel Beehner of the Council on Foreign Relations also takes a skeptical view of the potential impact of US plans. “I'm generally skeptical of the good soft diplomacy can have in Iran. The surveys I see show that most Iranians, particularly youth, who make up a bulk of the country, are pretty pro-America already (not pro-US foreign policy, however). A growing number have access to satellite TV. This is not Poland circa 1980,” he says.
And William Rugh, former US Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and a specialist in Middle East public diplomacy, says, “The package of new public diplomacy initiatives directed at Iran contains some positive elements and some well meaning but doubtful ones. The positive elements of the new Iran package are those that involve broadcasting, both radio and television. These are the soft power instruments that are highly appropriate in current circumstances with respect to Iran.”
Rugh says, “Other parts of the package are impractical. There is no way we can work with NGOs or dissidents or reformers inside Iran effectively, and working with exiles has limited value. For such programs, we must wait for an improvement in the overall atmosphere,” adding, “We should engage Tehran instead of confronting Tehran.“
Overall, he says, “Public diplomacy is a positive step but it’s very difficult to do without our being there.”
Will Iranians be influenced by US-funded media?
The outcome is unclear, experts say. According to Alvin Snyder, a VOA veteran now associated with the Center for Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California, “The VOA’s Persian-language TV programs must be compelling to successfully compete for viewers in Iran, where a variety of indigenous program fare is readily available, from sports to movies, and from news to family shows and entertainment. The VOA needs to speak out quickly and boldly, to stake out its turf within Iran’s media landscape, to excite viewers and attract immediate attention.”
The CFR’s Beehner says he is “not convinced that most Iranians are diehard pro-nuclear. For most, it's an issue of national pride; it's not about energy, or flouting NPT rules, or striking Israel. They see others with nuclear programs and think, why not us?”
One additional critical issue needs to be factored into this equation: Resistance to US pro-democracy offers from within Iran. Human rights advocate Shirin Ebadi, the first Muslim woman and first Iranian to win the Nobel Peace Prize, expressed this view in a recent PBS Newshour interview.
Asked if the Bush administration’s $75 million program would be “useful to you and your colleagues who are engaged in this fight from the inside?”, Ebadi replied, “No, I don't think that it benefits me or people like me, because whoever speaks about democracy in Iran will be accused of having been paid by the United States.”
Ebadi is not alone. Her views echo those of many other Iranian civil society activists who worry that the proposed US initiative will simply be used by the Islamic Republic as a pretense for intensifying its repressive approach toward civil society organizations.
Lionel Beehner agrees. In funding pro-democracy groups abroad or in Iran, “you endanger those you're trying to help.”
Beyond that, however, the reality of public diplomacy – whether through broadcasting, cultural exchanges, or support for dissident groups – is that it
cannot be turned on and off. It was never intended to be a quick fix. Even in a best-case scenario, it depends on a consistent effort over an extended period.
The US has failed to mount that kind of effort, and that failure does not bode well for the prospect of “winning hearts and minds” in Iran any time soon.