Home The Washington Diplomat August 2007 Iran’s Detention of Scholars Spurs Debate Over Democracy Promotion

Iran’s Detention of Scholars Spurs Debate Over Democracy Promotion


When Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, was jailed in Iran on charges of espionage this past spring, some international political observers—including her husband—put the blame on the United States and its “democracy promotion” efforts.

Esfandiari, a 67-year-old grandmother, has been incarcerated at the notorious Evin Prison in Iran since early May on charges of espionage and “endangering national security through propaganda against the system.”

Esfandiari’s husband, Shaul Bakhash, claims she was visiting relatives in Iran, not conducting covert operations. Bakhash told the Washington Times this summer that Esfandiari and three other Iranian-Americans being detained in Iran—social scientist Kian Tajbakhsh of the Open Society Institute, California businessman and peace activist Ali Shakeri, and journalist Parnaz Azima of the U.S.-funded Radio Farda—are inadvertent victims of a U.S. policy gone awry.

“I do believe careless talk by the Bush administration about regime change and the use of money for the advancement of democracy has fed a paranoia in Iran … and my wife and I are victims of that paranoia,” said Bakhash, a professor of history at George Mason University.

Ongoing tensions between the United States and Iran, as well as increasingly rocky relations with Russia and the difficulties of establishing a new democracy in Iraq, have sparked new debate over America’s policy of promoting democracy around the globe.

In a June speech in New York, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice alluded to U.S. democracy promotion efforts and insisted that the United States will continue to help other nations find their democratic footing, in part to help assure America’s own security.

“What must be our objective?” Rice asked during a speech to the Economic Club of New York. “I would suggest that it is indeed transformation: to expand the circle of well-governed states that enshrine liberty under the rule of law, that provide for their people, and that act responsibly in the international system. America cannot do this for other countries. Nor should we. It must be their choice and their initiative. But we can help and we must help. This is partnership, not paternalism.”

The U.S. State Department has allocated million in the 2007 budget for “civil society and human rights projects” in Iran. The controversial appropriation, which is not subject to public scrutiny, is reportedly being used to fund Radio Farda, Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe, as well as VOA satellite television, which broadcasts Persian programs into Iran. Some analysts have speculated that a part of the money has also been funneled secretly to exiled Iranian groups, political figures and nongovernmental organizations to help improve dialogue with Iranian opposition groups.

Goudarz Eghtedari, an Iranian native and political analyst who moved to the United States 20 years ago, hosts a Web-based talk show in Portland, Ore., called “Voices of the Middle East.” In an interview with The Washington Diplomat, Eghtedari said the U.S. approach in Iran is noble but flawed, and that bellicose statements about Iran by U.S. officials are not congruous with efforts to instill democracy.

President Bush famously declared Iran to be part of an “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union speech, and Vice President Dick Cheney has repeatedly said that a military strike against Iran is not out of the question.

“The goal of democracy promotion is really lost in the agenda of regime change,” Eghtedari said, adding that Iranians who favor regime change and a more genuine democracy are afraid to accept U.S. assistance for fear of ending up imprisoned or worse.

“In order for a democracy to evolve inside Iran it needs to have some basis inside the country—some people who can support it,” he said. “But with the rhetoric that’s being used, people don’t dare associate themselves with any of the projects.”

Iran and the United States broke off diplomatic relations following the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, and tensions have escalated dramatically in recent years because of U.S. insistence that Iran not develop nuclear weapons.

Michael McFaul, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a political science professor at Stanford University, said a return to diplomacy might go a long way toward achieving democratic reform in Iran. The United States has in recent months signaled a willingness to engage Iran—diplomacy that has been lacking since Bush’s 2002 State of the Union speech. Several U.S. presidential candidates, including former U.N. Ambassador and current New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, have also called for new diplomacy with Iran.

“All these programs would be much easier to do if we had a diplomatic relationship with Iran,” McFaul told The Diplomat. “If we had more transparency about what is actually going on, it would actually help the democrats inside Iran, rather than hurt them.

“It’s very, very, very rare that external actors play a direct role in democratization,” McFaul added. “It’s almost always through cooperating with domestic actors. They are the ones who are going to make democracy work or not, so those are the people we should be listening to in the way we make our foreign policy.”

McFaul is the co-author of a major bipartisan report on U.S. democracy promotion called “Bridging the Foreign Policy Divide: Should Democracy Be Promoted or Demoted?” The 15-page paper, co-authored by Francis Fukuyama of Johns Hopkins University and released in June, argues that U.S. democracy promotion is important, but that the strategies should be reformulated.

McFaul and others contend that America’s stated goals of democracy promotion in places such as Iran or Eastern Europe often seem condescending to those nations—many of which view it as foreign interference into domestic affairs—and that the U.S. rhetoric isn’t always accompanied by concrete action.

“We’ve got a real gap between rhetoric and the reality of American foreign policy,” McFaul said. “All that talk helps to undermine our credibility when we are promoting democracy. Now we have a ton of rhetoric about promoting liberty and having a values-based foreign policy, which I support. But the policy hasn’t been very well developed.”

McFaul is no stranger to the practice of democracy promotion. He ran a nongovernmental organization in Russia during the late 1990s, and since then, he said he’s come to realize that U.S. democracy promotion isn’t necessarily consistent.

“We have a lot of hypocrisy in how we promote democracy,” McFaul argued. “We seem really concerned about it in Iran, and not that concerned about it in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. We seem somewhat concerned about it in Russia, but not too concerned in Kazakhstan.”

So exactly what does U.S. democracy promotion policy entail? President Bush outlined it in a speech to the International Republican Institute in 2005. His overview included: freedom of speech, including a free press, which is necessary to ensure transparency, make leaders accountable, and allow citizens to voice their concerns and frustrations; freedom of assembly to create a venue for organization and dissent, and the formation of a loyal opposition that provides citizens with real choices; a free economy to create opportunity and lessen dependence on the state; an independent judiciary to guarantee the rule of law, equal justice and a check on the power of the executive branch; and freedom of worship to ensure respect for the beliefs of others and a tolerant, compassionate society.

Paula Dobriansky, undersecretary of democracy and global affairs at the State Department, expounded on those principles during a speech at the Hudson Institute two years ago. “These tenets of democracy serve as the goalposts of what we are seeking to create, cultivate or strengthen,” she said. “We assess each element in different countries to determine the best path to democracy. We view governments of concern on a spectrum ranging from those making gains toward democracy, but in need of help in consolidating those gains, to those backsliding from stable democracy, to those that are outposts of tyranny.

“Examples of the latter are North Korea, Burma, Zimbabwe and Cuba,” Dobriansky added. “In such situations, we reach out to opposition actors and reformers.”

That also, of course, appears to be happening in Iran. But Eghtedari, the Iranian native and political analyst, said this type of outreach requires more than just money in Iran, where threats of sanctions won’t be effective in building a better democracy or promoting regime change because economic ties between Iran and the United States are already nearly nonexistent.

“If we are not engaged in Iran economically, they won’t have anything to lose if there are sanctions,” he said. “We should be engaged with the whole country. We are not even inside the gate. If we get engaged, then we have leverage to have an impact inside the country.”

Fukuyama and McFaul, in their bipartisan Stanley Foundation paper on democracy promotion, argue that the United States should establish a new Department of International Develop-ment, with Cabinet-level authority. They suggest that all foreign assistance resources currently deployed from various departments be redeployed to this new agency, and that the agency deal directly with foreign governments, “firmly conditioned on development objectives.”

The authors also suggest that the sometimes dual roles played by soldiers and diplomats carrying out U.S. government goals are at odds under the current strategy. “Soldiers should not kill terrorists one day and teach Thomas Jefferson the next,” the report states. “Diplomats should not negotiate a basing agreement with a government one day and then turn around and fund an opposition leader to that same government.”

McFaul told The Diplomat that he remains optimistic about U.S. democracy promotion, but warned that reversing U.S. failures in recent years won’t be easy. “Should we promote democracy? I think the answer is an enthusiastic yes,” he said. “Can we promote democracy? I would give a more nuanced answer—a more cautious yes.”

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.