June 24, 2007

Crackdown in Iran

For whatever reason, the online version of Neil MacFarquhar's report about the Iranian government's new crackdown on dissidents didn't include this gruesome paragraph, which was in the print edition:
Young men wearing T-shirts deemed too tight or haircuts seen as too Western have been paraded bleeding through Tehran's streets by uniformed police officers who forces them to suck on plastic jerrycans, a toilet item Iranians use to wash their bottoms. In case anyone misses the point, it is the official news agency Fars distributing the pictures of what it calls "riffraff." Far bloodier photographs are circulating on blogs and on the internet.
And it's getting worse. Ideally, there would be something the United States could "do," but that's probably not possible. Not at this point. Maybe not for a long, long time. Negar Azimi had a in-depth piece in the New York Times Magazine today about how efforts by the U.S. government to promote democracy in Iran have mostly ended up backfiring. Most democracy activists in Iran don't want to come anywhere near American money, for fear of being arrested—or worse. Even U.S. officials sound gloomy:
Suzanne Maloney was on the policy-planning staff at the State Department for two years before she left last month to take up a post at the Brookings Institution. Her experience with the Iran portfolio demonstrates some of the difficulties inherent in democracy promotion. "In a small room it sounds terrific," she told me. "You put some money on the table, we support freedom and it gets us some points at home."

Maloney, who was one of a handful of staff members at the State Department who spoke some Farsi and had actually been to Iran, said she found herself doing a lot of damage control during her policy-planning stint: "I was worried about the safety of those on the receiving end of the funds. But I also just wondered if this was feasible. I don't see how a U.S. government that has been absent from Tehran for 30 years is capable of formulating a program that will have a positive effect."

She continued: "You had to wonder where this money was going to go and what's going to happen when you don't have the time to sit down and sift through the more questionable proposals. There's just not enough oversight. Of the 100 or more preliminary proposals I saw under the first call, it was an enormous challenge to find anything viable. This may have been a very high profile, sexy project, but the likelihood of real impact was minimal."
Much of the $75 million intended for Iran hasn't even been spent. And some of the programs that have been funded have been a disaster, like a Voice of America broadcast for Iran—which, as Azimi notes, has been turned into a propaganda organ rather than an actual forum for free discussion. Once Tom Coburn realized that a the creation of a free Persian-language radio station might involve having speakers who criticized U.S. policy—and take a more nuanced view of Iranian politics—he started complaining, and things changed. It's the same complaints conservatives have about Al Jazeerah, despite the fact that the station is a far more potent catalyst for democratic reform in the Middle East than anything the U.S. government has ever done.

Now, on the issue of Iran, who knows? If U.S. officials weren't always blustering on about regime change, maybe Tehran wouldn't be so paranoid about all grassroots democracy-promotion efforts. Or maybe not a damn thing would change either way. At this point, though, Iran's rulers are beyond convinced that the U.S. wants them overthrown, and seem dead set on locking up anyone who talks about even modest human rights improvements. It's a grisly scene all around.

Update: Oops, I guess this is why the aforementioned paragraph was excised online. Check out the very bottom of the article for the correction.
-- Brad Plumer 3:35 PM || ||