How to handle Iran may be the thorniest problem in global politics today—nobody seems to have a solution—but the Bush administration’s newest idea is simply baffling. Last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice publicly asked the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for $75 million in emergency funding to promote internal opposition to Iran’s fundamentalist regime.
“The United States,” Rice testified, “will actively confront the policies of this Iranian regime, and at the same time we are going to work to support the aspirations of the Iranian people for freedom in their own country.”
This statement does sum up America’s two main interests in the fate of Iran: first, to lure the regime away from developing nuclear weapons; second, to help create the conditions for a friendlier, democratic regime that might be either less interested in building nukes or less inclined to brandish them.
The trouble with Rice’s request for emergency funding is that it’s counterproductive to both goals. Nearly every nation has an interest in halting, detouring, or at least slowing down the Iranian mullahs’ quest for atomic bombs. But, as even most critical observers acknowledge, one motive for the Iranians is self-defense—to deter an attack, principally by the United States or Israel. That being the case, an American policy that explicitly promotes, and publicly funds, Iranian regime change will likely compel the mullahs to accelerate their nuclear program—and certainly to resist outside pressures to shut it down.
If the idea is really to help overthrow the government, Rice’s request for $75 million in emergency funding is a pathetically tiny sum. Maybe the administration is pouring in a lot more money covertly. I hope so. But if that’s what’s going on, why publicize any extra funding?
The bigger problem is that U.S. funding will discredit the very people we seek to encourage. Many Iranians, perhaps even a majority, despise their rulers. They yearn for democracy. To a degree unmatched in any other Middle Eastern nation besides Israel, they even like the United States. However, as anyone who knows anything about Iran’s history would emphasize, these same Iranians deeply distrust outsiders—including American ones—who try to interfere in their domestic affairs.
This distrust dates back to 1953, when the Central Intelligence Agency plotted with British oil interests to overthrow Iran’s nationalist premier, Mohammad Mossadeq, and replace him with the more pliant Shah. Iran’s current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is no Mohammad Mossadeq; but he was democratically elected, and he would likely don a similar martyr’s mantle if the United States tried to oust him, too.
By openly calling for regime change and backing it up with money (however trifling a sum), the Bush administration is playing into Ahmadinejad’s hands. Already adept at rallying his secret police to suppress internal dissidents, he could cite Rice’s testimony as “proof” that all democratic advocates are CIA agents and as a rationale for cracking down even harder.
The thing is, Iranian leaders really do pay attention to what American officials say. Kenneth Pollack tells an instructive story in his book, The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America. Shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Bush officials started meeting with Iranian officials. The two countries shared an interest in overthrowing the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and they took cooperative steps toward that common goal; two decades of mutual hostility began to melt away. Then, in January 2002, President Bush delivered his State of the Union Address—linking Iran with Iraq and North Korea as an “axis of evil”—and the Iranians instantly ended all talks. More than that, the Western-leaning factions within the Iranian regime were delegitimized and crushed.
This is not to suggest that it’s time to make nice with the Iranians. If the confrontation with Iran can be settled, it will be managed only through some shrewd mix of economic pressure, political saber-rattling, and diplomatic maneuver. Maybe Secretary Rice will try to pursue some combination along these lines, during her trip this week to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. Meanwhile, last week’s testimony—in which she tried to promote nuclear nonproliferation and Iranian democracy but wound up damping the prospects for both—doesn’t offer much hope.