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Flexing Softly on Iran

Prepared by: CFR.org Staff
February 16, 2006

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The end of the Cold War brought drastic reductions in U.S. funding for public-diplomacy programs, especially foreign-language broadcasts, bolstered by a sense in some policy circles that a long, great struggle had ended. The September 11, 2001, attacks showed the shortsightedness of such thinking. The Bush administration has recently re-emphasized the importance of public diplomacy in waging its “war on terrorism,” picking a former top presidential aide to head the State Department’s programs and boosting international broadcasting—including satellite television—with hundreds of millions of dollars.

The latest move in this direction is the administration’s request for $85 million for democracy-promoting efforts in Iran, a majority of it centered on Farsi-language broadcasts.

As Lionel Beehner explains in this CFR Background Q&A, the White House's move signals a change in approach by an administration that had focused on isolating Iran and labeled it part of the so-called axis of evil. It marks a new attempt to reform the Iranian regime from within through a tool known as “soft power.” One of the leading proponents of this approach, Joseph Nye of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, wrote in this Foreign Affairs article in 2004 that Washington’s success in the war on terrorism depends on its use of soft power—the capacity to persuade others without force.

Some in Congress applauded an attempt at reaching out to Iranians, though at least one nonproliferation expert was skeptical about the impact of increased broadcasts on the regime in Tehran (LAT). U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in a speech at CFR calling for a new communications strategy across the government, said Rice's proposal on Iran was an "excellent start." Toppling the Iranian regime will be difficult with no Lech Walesa-like figure to lead a peaceful revolution, the Christian Science Monitor writes. But the paper says the high number of votes reform candidates received in last year's presidential election is a hopeful sign.

Administration officials have stressed broadcasting and educational exchanges but have not provided specifics about how the money would be delivered. Analysts such as Michael McFaul and Abbas Milani of the Hoover Institution have said developing democracy in Iran is the best long-term chance of ending a nuclear-weapons program there. But they have written that in the quarter-century since the Islamic revolution, U.S. administrations have failed to develop a strategy for advancing the cause of Iranian democracy. A 2004 CFR Task Force called on the Bush administration to “selectively engage” Iranian political leaders as well as to open ties between Americans and Iranians to overcome the official enmity that has festered since 1979.

To date, the major U.S. public-diplomacy initiative directed at Iran is Radio Farda, a twenty-four-hour news and music station jointly run by Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Surveys commissioned by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) show the Farsi-language Radio Farda is the most-listened to international broadcaster in Iran. Mehdi Khalaji, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says Farda has the potential to make a substantial impact in Iran. But he says a major overhaul is needed in its management to make Farda more effective.

The BBG announced earlier this month plans to shift more of VOA’s resources to broadcasts in the Middle East, including more television programming in Farsi and improvements to the Radio Farda web site (WashPost).

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