U.S. Soft Diplomacy in Iran

February 17, 2006

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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As the international standoff over Iran’s nuclear program intensifies, U.S. officials have struggled to find solutions. Although it looks increasingly likely Iran will be brought before the UN Security Council in the coming months, sanctions will be difficult to achieve, in part, because of the Security Council members’ growing reliance on Iran for energy. A military solution—not off the table, according to the Bush administration—is a means of last resort, and most experts say a strike, surgical or otherwise, would only inflame Iranian nationalism, unify its people around the current regime, and delay Iran’s nuclear program, not eliminate its capabilities entirely. 

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice introduced a new strategy in her February 15 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, emphasizing the tools of so-called soft diplomacy. She called for ramping up funding to assist pro-democracy groups, public diplomacy initiatives, and cultural and education fellowships, in addition to expanding U.S.-funded radio, television, and Internet and satellite-based broadcasting, which are increasingly popular among younger Iranians. While stopping short of calling for regime change, Rice said “we are going to work to support the aspirations of the Iranian people for freedom in their country.”

What does the democracy program entail?

Secretary Rice says the $85 million program—a sevenfold increase over the previous budget—is just one part of a multi-pronged campaign to boost democracy and media freedoms in Iran. Specifically, the program consists of three components:

  • Expanding independent radio and television. Some $50 million of the spending will go toward establishing round-the-clock, Farsi-language television in tandem with current foreign nonstop radio broadcasts.
  • Funding pro-democracy groups. The initiative would lift bans on U.S.financing of Iran-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), trade unions, human rights groups, and opposition candidates. Most of the money will go to organizations based outside of Iran but with direct ties to eligible groups and people inside the country to protect their identity.
  • Boosting cultural and education fellowships and exchanges. The program would help pay Iranian students and scholars to enroll in U.S. universities. During the 1970s, there were 200,000 Iranian students in the United States, Rice told Congress; that figure is down to around 2,000 today.

Is this a significant departure from previous U.S. policy toward Iran?

Yes. Experts say it is a shift in Bush administration strategy toward Iran, which has previously been defined by diplomatic isolation and sanctions; last year, the program began but with only a $3.5 million budget. Further, the program would mark the first major coordinated pro-democracy effort by the United States in Iran since the seizure of American hostages in the 1979 Islamic revolution, which prompted the United States and Iran to sever formal diplomatic ties. “This idea of surrogate radio [radio broadcasts focusing on local developments], television, Internet sites, scholars back and forth—this is a new approach,” says Abbas Milani, co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Until recently, Milani adds, “there were several centers of policymaking competing with one another.”  Others suggest this new program indicates a more moderate posture by the White House. “It’s no longer all threats,” says William Rugh, a former U.S. ambassador who’s authored several books on soft diplomacy in the Middle East. “Softening [their stance] might open some doors and encourage others [in Iran’s government] to help moderate the policies there.”

Will this kind of democracy program be effective?

Experts disagree. “It could make the domestic situation [in Iran] more intense,” says Ray Takeyh, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies with the Council on Foreign Relations, pointing to the possibility of a backlash by the Iranian government. On the other hand, “if done well, this is the thing that can undo this regime,” Milani says. “The key is how it’s implemented, which must be careful and cognizant, as it may get people [in Iran] in trouble.” He suggests ending the U.S. embargo against Iran but coupling its public diplomacy program with so-called smart sanctions that target key figures in the Iranian administration. John Brown, professor of diplomacy at Georgetown University, supports the new public-diplomacy effort but says it may be too little, too late. “We should have started ages ago,” he says. “Now we’re playing catch-up." Other experts are skeptical of how the program will work. "How’s it going to be done? Are we going to work with them clandestinely?" Rugh asks. "If we send in some CIA types, that looks like regime change. If we fund NGOs in the States, that’s a waste of money."

Will Iranians be influenced by U.S.-funded media?

It’s unclear, experts say. “Public diplomacy is a positive step but it’s very difficult to do without our being there,” Rugh says. “The model is [our public diplomacy and broadcasting initiatives in] the Soviet Union, but we had an embassy in Moscow and people all over the region.” Though similar programs were largely successful in inspiring civil society and democratic yearnings in Communist societies during the Cold War, experts say Iran presents a different challenge. “Then, we had an audience that, in a sense, wanted to hear from us and was eager to have indications of our interests in them,” Brown says. “I’m not sure that’s the attitude of the public in Iran.”

Experts emphasize the importance of satellite radio and television. As many as 5 million Iranian households are estimated to own illegal satellite dishes. There are currently more than twenty satellite television channels. But to avoid “preaching to the converted,” Milani says the United States must reach the majority of Iranians without satellite dishes by increasing the number of medium-wave radio transmitters. The broadcasts must also be truly independent and of high quality, experts say. “The problem with these satellite broadcasters is a lot of them are [Los Angeles-based] Iranian expatriates who were active in radio before the [1979-80] revolution,” says Bill Samii, regional analysis coordinator with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “Not only are they out of touch, they’re sending out an unconvincing message.” Same goes for the State Department’s own Farsi-language website, experts say. “The translations on the website leave much to be desired,” wrote Mehdi Khalaji, visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in a recent brief. “The language lacks the dynamism and standards of contemporary Persian as spoken in Iran.” This threatens to blur the U.S. message, experts say, because 65 percent of Iran’s population is under the age of thirty.

How effective have U.S.-funded broadcasts been in Iran?

The impact has been mixed, experts say. Less than 5 percent of Iranians who listen to foreign broadcasts tune into Voice of America (VOA), which broadcasts in Farsi on radio three hours per day and on television one hour per day. Thus, Khalaji writes that “[VOA] can have at best a modest impact.” Radio Farda, the successor to U.S.-funded Radio Azadi, has enjoyed more success. Staffed by Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, the 24-hour news and music station is the third-most important conduit of information in Iran after local television and radio (excluding print media), according to an April-May 2005 survey commissioned by the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors. Milani says Radio Farda still lacks the influence and popularity of its predecessor Radio Azadi, which was more news-oriented. In general, the United States’ post-9/11 efforts at public diplomacy in the region have not been seen as successful. Although U.S.-funded al-Hurra, “Free One,” reaches 120 million mostly Arab viewers in twenty-one countries, “suspicion is strong within the region that it is merely a conveyor of propaganda,” according to the Council on Foreign Relations’ June 2005 Task Force Report on Arab democracy.

Can cultural exchanges achieve their desired result?

“The best thing about this whole package is the exchanges,” Georgetown’s Brown says. "But it’s difficult to do this [kind of public diplomacy] with exchanges because it takes time.” Since September 11, 2001, obtaining a visa to the United States has become increasingly difficult for Iranians. They must travel to Ankara, Dubai, or other capitals in the region to acquire a visa; there is no U.S. embassy in Tehran. Milani also points to other problems, including the severe lack of Persian studies programs at American universities. “When the Cold War began, the U.S. poured money into Russian and Marxism studies,” he says. “In the last twenty-five years, it’s become eminently clear the United States will have longstanding problems with Iran and the Middle East but university programs [on these areas] have shrunk.”

Could this democracy program backfire in Iran?

Perhaps, experts say. If the program fails, “we will have wasted the money, but worse than that, helped discredit legitimate opposition groups as traitors who receive money from the enemy to undermine Iran ’s national interest,” says Fariborz Mokhtari (PDF), a professor at the Near East South Asia Center of the National Defense University. The Hoover Institution’s Milani was surprised the Bush administration made the program public. “Now both the Iranian government and all the democrats in Iran are on guard to make sure they’re not branded with this,” he says. In recent months, Iranian authorities briefly banned CNN over a translation mishap and blocked the BBC’s Farsi edition. The bigger worry, Milani says, is turning everyday Iranians against the United States. “The Iranian street is predominantly pro-American while the Iranian government is anti-American,” he says. “That’s the opposite in the Arab world.”

What are some other diplomatic options for dealing with Iran?

One suggestion is to place foreign travel restrictions on Iranian officials. “This sends a message not only to [Iran’s] leaders, but to Iranians that these people are behaving in such a way that they’re international pariahs,” Samii says. “Will that persuade [Iranian leaders] to change? They’re so darn stubborn, I doubt it.” Another option floated in the New York Times and other papers is to ban Iran from the June 2006 World Cup Soccer Championship in Germany. While some experts say this tactic showed some success in Yugoslavia during the 1990s, most say it is ill-advised. “Soccer is the most popular event in Iran,” Milani says. “To ban the soccer team will mean only one thing: Iranians will turn against the U.S. for depriving them of that pleasure.”

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