Stiffing the Revolutionaries

Obama may be cutting off money for groups that promote democracy for Iran, but Reza Aslan says he and most other young Iranians struggling for change there are glad the U.S. is keeping its measly $85 million.

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

In 2006, after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked Congress to transfer $85 million into the Iran Democracy Fund to, as she put it, “promote political change inside Iran” (translation: bring down the Iranian regime), I made a visit to the plush offices of National Iranian Television (NITV) in Los Angeles to find out how some of the tens of millions of dollars the U.S. had been giving to various Iranian dissident and human-rights groups was being spent.

NITV is one of a dozen Persian satellite stations that broadcast from poorly lit and garishly furnished studios in Westwood and Beverly Hills—a region California’s huge Iranian Diaspora refers to as “Tehrangeles”—into millions of households across Iran. Such stations have already received millions of dollars in American taxpayers' money and would stand to benefit even more from the media propaganda campaign that was being developed by the Bush administration.

Inside the studios of NITV, I met with the station’s founder, Zia Atabay, an Iranian-American businessman and former pop star in pre-revolutionary Iran. With his broad, regal forehead, penetrating eyes, and startlingly black toupee, Atabay is an intimidating figure. He told me he had initially begun NITV as a business venture, but quickly recognized that he had a powerful stage on which to incite revolution and regime change in Iran.

“I want to show [Iranians] that their country is a prison,” he told me in his reserved yet booming voice.

Many of the people the Iran Democracy Fund was supposed to support—the human-rights activists and democracy promoters toiling inside Iran—wholeheartedly welcomed Obama’s decision.

Satellite dishes are technically forbidden in Iran, but even the poorest neighborhoods swarm with shiny white disks jutting from rooftops or tucked into gardens. Every once in a while, the authorities make a sweep of the cities, collecting the dishes and fining their owners. It only takes a day or so for the dishes to crop up again. Often, they are sold back to their previous owners by the authorities who confiscated them in the first place.

The dilemma for most Iranians is that the country’s national television is so mind-numbingly dull, so insufferably pedantic, and so rife with propaganda as to be virtually unwatchable. Not surprisingly, satellite stations have become the sole outlet in Iran for quality Persian-language entertainment.

The stations provide the most wildly eclectic programming, blending a steady stream of news, political talk, music videos, and advice programs designed to feed on the nationalism and nostalgia of disaffected Iranians. As I sat in Atabay’s offices, talking about Iran, I kept a furtive eye on the live feed from the NITV studio. A serious political talk show with a group of former monarchists and political exiles had just given way to a music video featuring a hairy-chested young Iranian-American pop star crooning a vacuous love song while grinding on two scantily clad girls in an L.A. nightclub.

Atabay makes no apologies for his station’s programming. On the contrary, he makes it quite clear that his goal is to tempt Iran’s youth with the frills of American freedom so that they will rise up and topple the clerical regime.

“They want to live like you in America,” Atabay said of young Iranians. “They want to live like European young people. And when they see the free world through us—through television, and radio, and other networks—how other young people can wear whatever they want, do whatever they want to do… they will start fighting for their freedom.”

Gary Sick: Inside Iran’s Intimidation Campaign Michael Adler: Iran’s Shell Game With millions of viewers inside Iran, satellite stations like NITV wield enormous influence. And yet conversations with the young Iranians who view these stations yield expressions of gratitude (“I love the new Mansour video!”) mixed with utter contempt, even mockery, of the anti-Islamic republic propaganda the stations offer. It is not that these young Iranians do not loathe their regime as much as the Zia Atabays of the world do. The thought of risking their lives to bring down a brutal regime because a millionaire Iranian living in a mansion in Beverly Hills told them to do so is too laughable to be taken seriously.

So when I heard President Obama had decided to dismantle the Iran Democracy Fund, I, along with a great many Iranian-Americans working for change in Iran, thought, “Good riddance.”

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In the press, Obama’s move to shutter the fund and cut off money for groups like the National Endowment for Democracy, whose founder boasts that it does what the CIA used to do covertly 25 years ago, has been characterized as abandoning Iran’s reformists and democracy activists. Former Senator Rick Santorum said Obama had “stiff[ed] Iran’s revolutionaries.” Senator Joe Lieberman called Obama’s actions “disturbing.” According to The Wall Street Journal, seven congressmen wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to express their concern with the administration’s decision.

Yet what few seemed to have noticed is that many of the people the Iran Democracy Fund was supposed to support—the human-rights activists and democracy promoters toiling inside Iran—wholeheartedly welcomed Obama’s decision. Indeed, a spokesman for Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi praised the move. “These U.S. funds are going to people who have very little to do with the real struggle for democracy in Iran and our civil society activists never received such funds,” the spokesman, Abdolfattah Soltani, told the BBC. “The end to this program will have no impact on our activities whatsoever.”

Akbar Ganji, Iran’s most famous political dissident, calls the Iran Democracy Fund “severely counterproductive,” noting that “none of the human-rights activists and members of the opposition in Iran had any interest in using such funds.” The problem, as Ganji sees it, is that even though Iran’s homegrown democracy activists refuse to go anywhere near the money—because the U.S. government will not release information about who actually receives the funds—the Iranian government simply assumes that any nongovernmental organization working for human rights in Iran must be in league with the U.S. government. This has greatly damaged the democracy movement in Iran, which, contrary to the beliefs of Zia Atabay and Rick Santorum, does not benefit one iota from their activities.

Admittedly, the Obama administration is still trying to figure out its Iran policy. Thus far, it has had some success in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, though much more needs to be done to ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons capability. Yet despite the criticism Obama has received from his neoconservative critics for not reaching out more forcefully to Iran’s reformists (as though Bush’s silly platitudes about “standing with Iran’s reformers” achieved anything other than isolating and endangering those reformers), the fact remains that there is simply no way for the United States to promote democracy in Iran except through dialogue and diplomacy with its reviled regime—not through more meaningless and thus far totally ineffective sanctions, not through empty threats of military actions, and certainly not through sexy music videos.

It is quite simple, really. The only way to punish a country for its bad behavior is first to have some kind of relationship with it. That is precisely what Obama is trying to do. By working toward the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Iran, Obama is laying the groundwork for real, meaningful, and lasting reform in Iran.

So on behalf of most, not all, young Iranians struggling for change in Iran, I say, keep your measly $85 million, America (chump change as far as covert propaganda operations go). But by all means, keep the music videos coming.

Reza Aslan, a contributor to the Daily Beast, is assistant professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside and senior fellow at the Orfalea Center on Global and International Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He is the author of the bestseller No god but God and How to Win a Cosmic War.