Promoting freedom

Isolating Iran externally, encouraging reformers internally may be only real option to defang Teheran.

cedar rally 88 298 (photo credit: AP)
cedar rally 88 298
(photo credit: AP)
A US State Department spokesman yesterday appeared to half-confirm a report that the Bush Administration is working behind the scenes to bolster political opposition to President Bashar Assad in the run-up to elections in Syria in March. The Time magazine report quoted from a classified document which detailed ongoing US efforts to "facilitate a more coherent strategy and plan of action for all anti-Assad activists." Specifically, it quoted the document as saying, "Internet-accessible materials" would be made available for distribution among anti-Assad activists in Syria and neighboring countries. Time added that the US was already "supporting regular meetings of internal and Diaspora Syrian activists" in Europe. Responding to the report, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack acknowledged that the US was "helping anyone who wants to promote freedom of expression in Syria, just like anywhere else in the world." McCormack also said that the US was "working to assist civil groups interested in promoting freedom and democracy in the Middle East." But is it doing enough? Is it investing its efforts in the most crucial areas? Every week that passes without concerted international action to thwart the progress toward a nuclear capability of Syria's much more threatening ally, Iran, brings the world closer to a choice of extreme situations: the initiation of military action to thwart that nuclear drive, or the acceptance that Iran has gone nuclear, with appalling consequences for the balance of power in the Middle East, wider nuclear proliferation and the immediate well-being of not only Israel, but also the rest of the free world. The irony of the international community's determined inaction is that this Iranian regime is vulnerable to sanction and to the US-encouraged promotion of "freedom and democracy" that McCormack spoke about. It is a net importer of refined oil. It is facing raging unemployment. And it may not be nearly as popular with its own people as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's soaring self-confidence would suggest. The final results now in from the twin election processes held last week in Iran appear to confirm what one of Israel's leading Iran-watchers, broadcaster Menashe Amir, considers to be a certain "crumbling" of support for Ahmadinejad. The president's extremist spiritual mentor, Ayatollah Mohammad Mesbah-Yazdi, was markedly outscored by the former president Hashemi Rafsanjani in voting for the Assembly of Experts that, come the day, will select the country's next supreme leader, the successor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who holds real power in Iran. Ahmadinejad's allies also fared badly in local elections, winning less than 20 percent of council seats around the country. In the voting for the Teheran City Council, the former mayor's loyalists took just three of the 15 seats, while those associated with his rival and successor as mayor, Mohammad Qalibaf, won seven. Like most other analysts, Amir has always stressed that the differences between the "extremists", like Mesbah-Yazdi and Ahmadinejad, and the "pragmatists", such as Rafsanjani, are relative and nuanced. It is the regime, rather than this or that political figure, says Amir, that has to be ousted if the Iranian threat is to be defanged. But the combination of economic realities and election indicators appears to bolster the case of those, in Israel and beyond, who argue that there is little to be lost, and much potentially to be gained, by a concerted effort to both isolate Iran externally and encourage reformers internally. Bush's new Defense Secretary Robert Gates has evinced a certain reconciliation to the prospect of a nuclear Iran. The question is how widely this is shared by other administration figures. The president, crucially, has hitherto indicated a determination to prevent Teheran getting the bomb. Speaking to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explained the Administration's request for a total of $85 million in funding to "support democracy" in Iran in 2006. It was the US's intent, she pledged, "to try and deny to regimes like Iran... the materials for covert programs that threaten the international system. At the same time, we are going to begin a new effort to support the aspirations of the Iranian people." In the 10 months since then, the danger that a nuclear Iran would pose has only become more manifest, and that $85 million figure more trifling. Everything that Rice vowed to do 10 months ago - "to develop support networks for Iranian reformers, political dissidents and human rights activists... to improve our radio broadcasting, begin satellite television broadcasts... increase the contacts between our peoples... bolster our public diplomacy efforts" and more, has only become more patently essential. And more urgent.