WASHINGTON — You might have missed it, but a new era has dawned in U.S. policy toward Iran. On February 15, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the Bush administration’s foreign affairs budget for the coming year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice articulated what amounts to a sea-change in America’s approach to Iran. In her remarks, Rice revealed that the Bush administration is asking Congress for $75 million in supplemental funds for Iran-related programming. The objective? “To support the aspirations of the Iranian people for freedom in their own country.”
For dedicated Iran watchers, Rice’s declaration was a long-overdue sign of seriousness. For years, the White House has supported Iranian democracy in word, but not in deed. Despite regular pronouncements from administration officials — and repeated references in the State of the Union — the Bush administration has done little that is tangible to showcase its commitment to the cause of freedom in Iran. Instead, time and again, government officials have gravitated toward some sort of accommodation with Tehran on such issues as Iraq and even the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions. Concurrently, U.S. government broadcasting toward Iran has languished at minimal levels. (Last year, the combined budget for Voice of America Persian language programming and Radio Farda was $16.4 million — less than 22 cents per Iranian a year, and less than a third of what was spent per capita on broadcasting toward the USSR in 1983!) By far the biggest problem, however, has been the lack of a coherent message about American priorities vis-a-vis Iran, coupled with a palpable unwillingness to resolutely confront the Islamic Republic.
All that appears to be changing. In its new request for democracy assistance funding toward Iran, the White House stakes out a number of concrete goals:
— To increase U.S. government broadcasting into Iran through the establishment of a new 24/7 Farsi-language channel into Iran, as well as upgrades to radio transmission capabilities and investments in satellite broadcasting technology for existing radio and television programming.
— To promote democratic processes within Iran, specifically, to “foster participation in the political process and support efforts to expand internet access as a tool for civic organization,” with the help of groups like the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute.
— To provide educational opportunities to young Iranians through scholarships and international visitors programs.
— And to bolster Internet outreach to Iran, as well as provide support to independent Farsi-language television and radio outlets.
The resulting message is crystal clear: while it may still shy away from saying so publicly, Washington has now committed itself to a change of regime in Tehran.
DEMOCRACY ACTIVISTS SHOULD NOT rest on their laurels just yet, however. As it stands, the bulk of the administration’s new money (some $50 million) is earmarked for official media outreach to Iran. But government broadcast outlets such as Voice of America and Radio Farda suffer from serious systemic dysfunctions, among them widespread staffing problems, sub-optimal programming, a lack of defined goals and no metrics by which to measure success. Failing to address these deficiencies will virtually ensure that U.S. broadcasting remains far short of adequate, no matter how much money is spent.
But the administration’s plan also contains two key initiatives. The first is the idea of educational exchanges and cultural contacts, a practice that during the Cold War helped nurture a cadre of pro-American foreign activists, including Helmut Kohl and Vaclav Havel. Over the past decade-and-a-half, such initiatives have all but fallen by the wayside; between 1991 and 2001, the number of academic and cultural exchanges between the United States and foreign nations dropped by nearly 40 percent, according to a 2003 study by the Heritage Foundation. Reconstituting and reinforcing such contacts is particularly important when it comes to Iran, given its overwhelmingly young population (some 50 million people under the age of 30) and their obvious discontent with the ruling regime.
Second, it recognizes that in the battle for Iranian hearts and minds, the United States has an indispensable ally: the Iranian-American community. Today, no fewer than 21 separate expatriate radio and television channels broadcast into Iran from the West Coast of the United States. Moreover, these broadcasts command far greater legitimacy and attention among the Iranian population than anything official Washington can bring to bear. Yet for years, they have scraped by on shoestring budgets and without official endorsement. The Bush administration’s allocation of $5 million for these channels is an important starting point for ensuring that their moderate, pro-American message is heard loud and clear inside the Islamic Republic.
Much more undoubtedly needs to be done. But the White House should be applauded for taking the vital first step toward a goal that is shared by both the United States and the people of Iran — the transition to a peaceful, pluralistic government in Tehran.