A bid to foment democracy in Iran

The Bush team unveils a plan to push for Iranian-led reform. Can it really yield 'regime change'?

With Poland's Solidarity movement of the 1980s as its model, the Bush administration wants to boost support for opposition groups inside Iran as a way to counter the actions of the Tehran government.

The implicit goal: regime change from within.

An emerging consensus in Washington finds that with diplomacy having so far failed to stop Iran's nuclear ambitions, and US military action deemed extremely problematic, the remaining option is a pro-democracy revolution.

But even as the United States urges other countries in the Middle East, or those with close ties to Iran, to join in pressuring for political change there, questions are arising over the effectiveness of internal-change-from-without programs and the degree of grass-roots support inside Iran for opposition groups. There's also the risk of such a plan backfiring.

"There's no doubt Iran has a very vibrant civil society and a growing and active youth population. But how to translate those strengths into political change - and whether the US can be the external driver for that change - are big hurdles to cross," says Bahman Baktiari, a specialist in Middle East politics at the University of Maine.

An initial problem, Mr. Baktiari says, is that because of Iranians' widespread disdain for US policies - including those in Iraq - "any group identified with the US loses credibility."

Beyond that, he adds, the comparison to Poland is not a good one because the Iranian regime is not as weak as Poland's dictatorship was when an externally supported Solidarity challenged it.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Congress this week that the administration is seeking $75 million in emergency funding to immediately begin ratcheting up support for pro-democracy forces inside Iran. Currently, $10 million was budgeted for such efforts, and little of that money has been spent.

The view in the administration, according to State Department officials, is that the time is ripe for such action - and for getting other countries to go along. Tehran is now widely seen as having crossed "red lines," as Secretary Rice says, with its return to nuclear fuel enrichment this week and with repeated provocative outbursts from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The money will go toward boosting broadcasts in Farsi to Iran, support for opposition groups, and student exchanges. Rice, on the road next week, will tout the effort during stops in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Other officials will take up the cause with Western allies - considered ready to challenge Tehran after it rebuffed diplomatic efforts by Britain, France, and Germany to negotiate a settlement to Iran's nuclear ambitions.

A risk the plan will backfire

But the impact of such an effort remains on the horizon at best, experts say. There's also the possibility, they warn, that outside pressure for change could actually bolster the regime. US efforts to build an internal opposition to Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez, for example, are widely credited with having solidified support for the populist leader by allowing him to attack his opponents as US stooges.

"If the administration follows the path of putting money into opposition groups in a public way, that will only reinforce Iran's supreme leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] and his selected president, Mr. Ahmadinejad," says Raymond Tanter, a former National Security Council Middle East specialist during the George H.W. Bush administration. "They will be tarred by association" with the US.

Rise of the People's Mujahideen of Iran?

The US may be forced to look again, he says, at the People's Mujahideen of Iran (MEK), a longtime opposition group to the Tehran regime that also sits on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations. "Other opposition groups really don't exist," says Mr. Tanter, who spent four months studying Iran's opposition before reaching that conclusion. "If we are serious about working with groups from within, it will have to be with the MEK, because there's no other opposition force the regime cares about."

Last month, Rice repeated publicly the US policy of not working with the MEK. The group is accused of terrorist acts, including killing American citizens working in Iran in the 1970s. But several members of Congress are pressing to remove the MEK from the terror-group list, and Tanter sees "the door opening" in the administration to renewed recognition of the group.

The Council for Democratic Change in Iran, based in Washington, welcomes signs of external support for Iran's opposition, says spokesman Mehdi Marand. But the Bush administration approach is not the most productive, he adds.

"The problem right now is not financial, it's political," he says. "If the US really wants to help the democratic forces inside Iran, the only way is to remove restrictions from the opposition."

Some in Congress are ready to take the MEK off the terror list because they see it as the only option for change within Iran, Mr. Marand says.

Others say US association with the MEK would be unwise. The MEK lost credibility and support among Iranians after finding refuge under Saddam Hussein, says Baktiari. "Backing a discredited group would be akin to the US hitching its wagon to Ahmad Chalabi in Iraq. Most people now believe that was a disaster."

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