Aid to Iran . . .

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Monday, February 20, 2006

IS IT A SIGN OF increased wisdom -- or is it a sign of increased desperation? If the Bush administration had announced its intention to spend $75 million on promoting democracy, student exchanges and independent media in Iran several years ago, as part of a wider policy of promoting democracy in the broader Middle East, the policy would have seemed unquestionably wise. To many observers, it has always seemed odd that American efforts to support dissidents in Iran -- one of the few Middle Eastern countries with a broad, diverse and educated democratic opposition -- have been so slim. Usually, the excuse given was historical: American diplomats, queasy about the United States' mixed record of "meddling" in Iranian politics, didn't want to discredit the country's democrats by association, or give the regime another excuse to lock them up. Still, the arguments at least for better Farsi radio and television programming have always been incontrovertible: Iranians do listen to foreign media, but until now they've had mostly pop music stations and third-rate news programs to choose from.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's declaration of a major policy change in this area is welcome. If nothing else, getting better information into Iran could help Iranians understand the West's point of view in its escalating nuclear dispute with their country: At the moment, they hear only one side of the story. But the timing of her announcement, on the heels of the U.S. and European failure to rein in Iran's nuclear program, does make it seem as if the administration is supporting democrats because there isn't much else to be done. True, the administration is still working with its European allies, China and Russia to bring Iran before the United Nations Security Council as early as next month. But any action by the council will be slow and relatively weak, at least at first. The Iranians, meanwhile, aren't deterred: Last week they announced plans to return to full scale uranium enrichment.

Administration officials themselves describe the policy change on democracy aid as the product of a reassessment of the nature of the Iranian threat: This, they say, is the first step in meeting the long-term challenge posed by what they now believe to be a genuinely radical regime. The State Department also plans to build up its Iranian expertise, to teach more diplomats to speak Farsi, to consult with Europeans who have had more business and diplomatic contacts with Iran, and generally to make up for the experience lost in the 26 years that the United States has had no diplomatic representation in Tehran.

The main task now is to make sure that the new democracy policy isn't perceived within the State Department or the Pentagon as "second best" and that the money, which could go quite a long way in Iran, gets spent wisely. That means funding not just the traditional, U.S.-based radio and television stations, which have so far had mixed success, but independent, Iranian exile stations -- or at least those that can be induced to offer a reliable source of news. That also means spreading money around, in very small amounts, so that it remains invisible both to the regime and to ordinary Iranians. Above all it means not identifying "friends" too quickly or with too little skepticism. The United States has a very mixed record in its choices about which dissidents to support, having done so successfully in 1980s Poland, and unsuccessfully in prewar Iraq. If the Iranian opposition is to succeed, it must do so on its own terms.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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