Unintended (Meaning Bad) Consequences of Promoting Democracy in Iran


Remember Haleh Esfandiari, the scholar who was detained for eight months on a recent trip to Iran to visit her elderly mother? She’s just co-authored a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “When Promoting Democracy Is Counterproductive.”

A longtime advocate of reconciliation between Iran and the United States, Esfandiari points to some unintended yet entirely predictable consequences of bellicose posturing combined with the U.S.’s recent $75 million appropriation for “democracy promotion” in Iran. U.S. policy has succeeded in nothing so much as inflaming paranoia among elements of the Iranian government—some of it justified, arguably—which has in turn contributed to what the authors term “a broad crackdown on Iran’s civil society.” Of course, Esfandiari learned this the hard way when she was accused of conspiring against the regime and was thrown into Iran’s Evin Prison. More from the article (which requires a subscription):

Ahmadinejad has effectively played the nationalist card, using U.S. regime-change rhetoric to deflect attention from his government’s poor performance. He has managed to cast himself as a defender of Iran’s interests against an interventionist America….

Meanwhile, while eschewing official contact, the United States attempts to financially support Iran’s own nascent NGO’s so that they can become agents of change within the society. Yet this program of democracy promotion has had the unintended consequence of further reducing the political space for open debate in Iran. In this new climate of intimidation, NGO’s and journalists are subject to censorship and are defensively engaging in self-censorship. Prominent Iranian activists, such as the Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, declared their opposition to the U.S. program because of continued sensitivity about foreign, particularly American, intrusion in Iran’s domestic politics. The fact that the identities of Iranian recipients of U.S. aid are regarded as classified information by the U.S. government feeds the regime’s paranoia and casts suspicion on all Iranian NGO’s.

An Iranian-American human rights activist made a similar point earlier this year in a chilling piece on stonings in Iran. Soheila Vahdati argued that U.S. saber-rattling and the democracy promotion package had “caused the current Iranian regime to see the hand of the United States at work in every movement for social and legal change.” As a result, the women’s movement found itself “undermined by an air of suspicion about our genuine aims and activities.” Will the administration ever learn that intrusive U.S. policy isn’t helping matters in Iran? Probably not.

—Justin Elliott