Azimi on US democracy-promotion in Iran

Negar Azimi has a long piece on US democracy promotion efforts in Iran called Hard Realities of Soft Power. It includes reference to US policymaking, the misguided attacks on VOA Persian (widely considered to be an excellent service, both as a radio station and a program that increases esteem for the US in Iranian eyes) -- something similar happened with VOA Arabic as discussed several times in this blog), the arrests of activists who have links to the US, the debate over the "kiss of death" theory of American democracy-promotion, and more.

Many Iranians have grown paranoid about anything vaguely linked to the West. Conference and workshop attendance, travel and even e-mail and phone contact with foreign entities is suspect. In the last three months, at least three prominent NGOs have been shut down indefinitely. Kayhan, the semiofficial newspaper, editorializes almost daily about an elaborate network conspiring to topple the regime. Called “khaneh ankaboot,” or “the spider nest,” the network is reportedly bankrolled by the $75 million and includes everyone from George Soros to George W. Bush to Francis Fukuyama to dissident Iranians of all shades. In this vision, the network gets its “orders” from the Americans.

It is particularly telling, perhaps, that some of the most outspoken critics of the Iranian government have been among the most outspoken critics of the democracy fund. Activists from the journalist Emadeddin Baghi to the Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi to the former political prisoner Akbar Ganji have all said thanks but no thanks. Ganji has refused three personal invitations to meet with Bush. A member of a U.S.-based institution that has received State Department financing and who works with Iranians told me that the Iranians had expressly asked not to have their cause mentioned in presidential speeches. “The propaganda campaign surrounding the launch of this campaign has meant that many of our partners are simply too afraid to work with us anymore,” she told me on condition of anonymity. “It’s had a chilling effect.”
One thing that strikes me among the many issues raised in Negar's piece is that one does not get the impression that the "believers" among the democracy promotion crowd have really done a "lessons learned" from policy Iraq. Or that there is much of plan beyond providing $75 million to whoever will take it.

Anyway, the debate over democracy promotion apparently continues -- for more lofty-minded types, here is Francis Fukuyama's latest position on the issue. Read it quick before he changes his mind.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.