Fund bridges, not failed policy

Congress is adept at throwing money at a problem. Far better to continue doling out cash on a project than to admit it’s not working. Or is it? After all, bridges are falling. We are facing major challenges in Iraq. Millions are without health insurance. In a time when the budget is increasingly stretched, Congress should reassess its spending — particularly on programs that have done more damage than good. The Iran democracy fund is a prime example of such a program.

The Iran democracy program was conceived in 2005 with the noble vision of empowering the people of Iran to realize a peaceful transition from the present theocratic model and semi-democratic institutions to a full-blown democracy where human rights are respected and civil society thrives. Two years and millions of dollars later, the program has had the opposite effect. Rather than promoting democracy, the U.S. funding has narrowed the space for the pro-democracy movement to operate. Today, the conditions for civil society have significantly deteriorated. Executions are at an all-time high. Many human rights workers have been imprisoned.

While Congress has rightfully condemned the Iranian government for imprisonment of Haleh Esfandiari and countless others, little attention has been paid to what may be motivating the autocrats in Tehran. The Iranian government views the U.S. funding program as a tool to exact regime change through Iranian civil society. It has used this perceived threat as a pretext to crackdown on civil society at large. While the Iranian government historically has not needed a pretext to harass its own population, it would nevertheless behoove Congress not to provide it with one.

As Congress looks to appropriate additional funding for this project in the state and foreign operations act this September, it should consider the wishes of the people it seeks to help.

Human rights activists in Iran have uniformly denounced the program. “It is neither wise nor morally justifiable for the U.S. to continue its path,” said Emaddeddin Baghi of the $75 million emergency supplemental this May. Baghi, a prominent human rights activist in Tehran, was sent back to prison two weeks ago. Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi has also called for the termination of the program. “Washington’s policy of ‘helping’ the cause of democracy has backfired,” wrote Ebadi in the International Herald Tribune this spring. “The Bush Administration should put an end to its misguided policy.”

But if actions speak louder than words, consider the actual expenditure of the program funding. Of the millions obligated for democracy promotion in Iran, only a negligible amount has found its way into the country. This isn’t for lack of publicity. Condoleezza Rice has dedicated many a sound bite to touting the existence of the program. Still the State Department has been hard pressed to find takers, as would-be recipients refuse to accept funding widely considered tainted by the U.S. name. In its broad mandate and secretive nature, the program has rendered every member of civil society a potential recipient of U.S. funds, and thus subject to harassment by the Iranian government. This program, said Human Rights Watch at a conference last month, is “painting a target on their backs.”

For its part, Congress has tacitly acknowledged that that the program has problems. In this year’s bill, the Senate Appropriations Committee recommended the funding be slashed to $25 million, far below the administration’s $75 million request. The House version, which was passed last month, provides $50 million for the democracy program.

This is not to say that Congress shouldn’t have a role in promoting democracy in Iran. On the contrary, it has an important part to play. But in the words of Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), speaking on the subject at a conference in late July, “Congress needs to do something, but that doesn’t mean we have to do something stupid.”

Moran’s comments came days before the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minnesota, which sent several Americans tumbling to their death. The tragedy could have been avoided, reports say, had it not been for recent reductions in federal spending on maintenance of critical infrastructure.

Come September, Congress will be looking for ways to fill in these budgetary potholes without increasing the budget. Where better to look for savings than in the bloated budget of the democracy program, which has hurt the very people it is aimed to assist?

Congress should drastically reduce, if not eliminate, additional funding for the democracy program until its efficacy has been thoroughly evaluated and proper measures have been taken to ensure the safety of those targeted for the funds. Not only would this help ensure that no more bridges fall in the American heartland, but it would also ease the burden on the most effective agent for change in Iran — the Iranian people.

Parsi is president of the National Iranian American Council (www.niacouncil.org) and author of Treacherous Alliance – The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the U.S. (Yale University Press, 2007). Blout is the council’s legislative director.