A bid to foment democracy in Iran

With Poland’s solidarity movement of the 1980s as its model, the Bush administration wants to boost support for opposition groups inside Iran as a way to counter the actions of the Tehran government. The implicit goal: Regime change from within.

An emerging consensus in Washington finds that with diplomacy having so far failed to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and US military action deemed extremely problematic, the remaining option is a pro-democracy revolution. But even as the US urges other countries in the Middle East, or those with close ties to Iran, to join in pressuring for political change there, questions are arising over the effectiveness of internal-change-from-without programmes and the degree of grassroots support inside Iran for opposition groups. There’s also the risk of such a plan backfiring.

“There’s no doubt Iran has a very vibrant civil society and a growing and active youth population. But how to translate those strengths into political change — and whether the US can be the external driver for that change — are big hurdles to cross,” says Bahman Baktiari, a specialist in Middle East politics at the University of Maine. An initial problem, Baktiari says, is that because of Iranians’ widespread disdain for US policies, including those in Iraq, “any group identified with the US loses credibility.” Beyond that, he adds, the comparison to Poland

is not a good one because the Iranian regime is not as weak as Poland’s dictatorship was when an externally supported solidarity challenged it.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the Congress this week that the administration is seeking $75 million in emergency funding to immediately begin ratcheting up support for pro-democracy forces inside Iran. Currently, $10 million was budgeted for such efforts, and little of that money has been spent.

The view in the administration, according to State Department officials, is that the time is ripe for such action. Tehran is now widely seen as having crossed “red lines,” as Secretary Rice says, with its return to nuclear fuel enrichment this week and with repeated provocative outbursts from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The money will go toward boosting broadcasts in Farsi to Iran, support for opposition groups, and student exchanges.

But the impact of such an effort remains on the horizon at best, experts say. There’s also the possibility, they warn, that outside pressure for change could actually bolster the regime. US efforts to build an internal opposition to Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez, for example, are widely credited with having solidified support for the populist leader by allowing him to attack his opponents as US stooges.

Experts say the US may be forced to look again at the People’s Mujahideen of Iran (MEK), a long time opposition group to the Tehran regime that also sits on the State Department’s list of terrorist organisations. Last month, Rice repeated publicly the US policy of not working with the MEK.

The group is accused of terrorist acts, including killing American citizens working in Iran in the 1970s. Some in Congress are ready to take the MEK off the terror list because they see it as the only option for change within Iran. Others say US association with the MEK would be

unwise. — The Christian Science Monitor