Here's a perfect example of the wrong way to advance an objective:
"Tehran's jailing of Haleh Esfandiari, a 67-year old grandmother who holds dual Iranian-American citizenship, as well as the interrogation of others with similar papers, is evidence that Washington's latest attempt to foist change on Iran is backfiring — as Iranian democracy advocates had warned. The Bush Administration had trumpeted its $61.1 million democracy program, including Farsi-language broadcasts into Iran, education and cultural exchanges and $20 million worth of support for "civil society, human rights, democratic reform and related outreach" as an important effort. However, sources tell TIME that several key Iranian reformers had repeatedly warned U.S. officials through back channels that the pro-democracy program was bound to expose them as vulnerable targets for a government crackdown whether they took Washington's funds or not.
Iranian civil rights activists contacted by TIME say that the cases against the Iranian-Americans have fostered the most repressive atmosphere inside Iran in years, making democracy advocates terrified to work or even speak on the telephone. Many are deeply reluctant to leave or re-enter the country, fearing that they will meet the same fate as Esfandiari, who was initially detained while heading to the airport after an eight-day visit to Iran to see her 93-year-old mother. She and at least two other Iranian-Americans were charged with espionage. Esfandiari is the director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Mideast Program in Washington. The Wilson Center has strongly denied that she or the center has received any of the Bush Administration's funds. (...)
TIME's sources, who do not want to be identified for fear of retribution, say that they repeatedly warned about the negative consequences in informal talks that have been taking place for several years between figures in the U.S. and Iran who are close to their respective governments. Similar warnings were delivered to U.S. officials by others, including Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council. "We had talks with the State Department and with lawmakers," Parsi told TIME. "We pointed out the dangers. Our advice was not taken into consideration. Things have turned out worse than we expected." Parsi says that, in the past, individual democracy activists have been arrested without a pretext, but that the Bush Administration's program gave the regime an opportunity to go after as many as 10,000 non-government organizations and their memberships. "There is tremendous self-censorship going on," Parsi says. "They know that the money has made them targets." Speaking to TIME, a State Department official explained that because "dictatorships do react against any kind of rule-of-law, or democracy-promoting programs," the U.S. does not make public the names of recipients of program funds, although recipients are aware that the money is coming from the U.S. (...)
Akbar Ganji and Emaddeddin Baghi, two of Iran's most prominent pro-democracy activists, who have served long prison sentences for their activities, are among those who protested the U.S. democracy program. In a letter to international human rights organizations after Esfandiari's imprisonment, Baghi denounced the program as morally unjustifiable for effectively putting Iranian activists in harm's way.
Bush's democracy program is opposed even by some exile groups that support a tough U.S. line against the Islamic regime, including a royalist group led by Reza Pahlavi, the son of the deposed shah who seeks to reinstate the monarchy. In an e-mailed comment to TIME, Pahlavi said he "would not accept funds from any foreign governments." He said there were ways to support freedom "without such support coming in the form of governmental funds which invariably ends up hurting those it intends to help by unfairly labeling them as foreign agents."
Several mainstream Iranian reformers tell TIME that from the start they transmitted their opposition to the democracy program indirectly but clearly to American officials via the back-channel talks. Besides warning that it could trigger a crackdown, they argued that Iran's reform movement had strong popular support and did not want or require foreign help. Outside backing has been an unusually sensitive issue in Iranian politics ever since a CIA-backed coup d'etat in 1953 installed the former Shah. Instead, many of them argue, Iran's democracy movement would be better served if the U.S. lifted sanctions and improved relations with Tehran, which would enable trade and cultural links to be expanded. "There is no serious individual inside or outside Iran who is going to take this money," an Iranian reformer told TIME. "Anyone having the slightest knowledge of the domestic political situation in Iran would never have created this program.""
Later in the article, a State Department spokesman says that we should not blame these arrests on the US' democracy promotion programs. But blame isn't the point; trying to promote democracy is. And when the people who are actually trying to promote democracy in a country tell you that what you're proposing to do will put them in personal jeopardy, taint their organizations, and in all sorts of ways be counterproductive, then it might be a good idea to rethink your proposal.
This ought to be obvious generally, but especially in a country like Iran. We were involved in toppling their democratically elected government. We have just invaded two countries on their borders. In both cases we promised to create democracy, and in both cases large chunks of the countries we invaded are in chaos. Under these circumstances, the last thing in the world that any Iranian pro-democracy movement needs is us sending them money. They might as well start wearing buttons saying "Kiss Me! I'm CIA!"
There are a lot of situations in which there's not much that we can do to promote democracy. This is one of them. Perhaps in some distant future, when the record of our current policies in the Middle East has been overwritten by an extensive history of good deeds undertaken with no strings attached and no expectation of any quid pro quo, we will reach the point when sending money to pro-democracy activists in Iran will not be counterproductive. I won't hold my breath.
UPDATE: I meant to say this in the original post, but forgot.
That sending money to pro-democracy groups in Iran is counterproductive is not that hard to figure out. For this reason, I think that there are two possible readings of the Bush administration's decision to do it. First, they are incompetent morons; or second, they don't care enough about promoting democracy to figure out even basic facts about how to go about it. Perhaps they just don't care about anything, or perhaps they care about something else, like pleasing their backers at the National Review, or giving Republican candidates the ability to say that they voted to spend gazillions of dollars on "democracy promotion in Iran", counting on us not to know or care whether what they were doing had even the slightest possibility of success.
In neither case should this be held against the goal of democracy promotion per se. As John Stuart Mill once wrote, "There is no difficulty in proving any ethical standard whatever to work ill, if we suppose universal idiocy to be conjoined with it." Democracy promotion might or might not be a good idea if carried out intelligently, but we can't look to the results of this administration's foreign policy to tell us much about that. What it does teach us is the overwhelming importance of electing people who have some clue what they're doing.