Iran, The United States and the Imposition of Democracy

With Washington being positively apoplectic about the possibility that a foreign nation was involved in U.S. election meddling in 2016, a look at a Congressional Research Service document from February 17, 2017 entitled “Iran: Politics, Human Rights, and U.S. Policy” by Kenneth Katzman is particularly relevant.  In this report, the author looks at the complex political relationship between the United States and Iran and how, since the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979m, Washington has attempted to manipulate Iran’s political system, an issue that is of interest given the recent unrest among some Iranians.

While the United States has a long history of using sanctions to push Iran into changing its “evil ways”, it has also had an extensive track record of attempting regime change in Iran going all the way back to 1953 when the CIA played a role in the coup d-etat that saw Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadegh overthrown (Operation Ajax), largely because of his nationalization of Iran’s hydrocarbon reserves.  At that time, the United States and the United Kingdom replaced the democratically elected Mossadegh with General Fazlollah Zahedi who allowed Mohammed Reza Pahlavi aka the Shah of Iran to rule Iran as a monarch until 1979.  In the fall of 1978, protests against the Shah’s rather brutal rule ended up seeing him leave Iran and go into exile in January 1979.  At that time, a national referendum was held and a new theocratic constitution was put into place with the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei becoming Iran’s Supreme Leader.  In 1989, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i was selected by the elected Assembly of Experts.

Iran has a fairly complex parliamentary system consisting of both elected and appointed bodies according to the nation’s Constitution.  Here is a diagram showing Iran’s balance of power which is shared between religious and secular institutions:

The bulk of the secular and religious power in Iran falls under the control of the Supreme Leader (i.e. the Grand Ayatollah) who is appointed by the twelve member Guardian Council.  Along with the Guardian Council, the Supreme Leader controls the government institutions that are in place to both elect and supervise him.  The elected president is deemed to be the second highest ranking official in Iran, however his power is controlled by the constitution which ultimately places the executive branch under the direction of the Supreme Leader. 

Here are the Supreme Leader’s responsibilities:

– set the tone and direction of Iran’s domestic and foreign policies

– commander-in-chief of the armed forces and controller of the Islamic Republic’s intelligence and security operations.

– appoints and dismisses judges

– supreme commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

– appoints half of the 12 members of the Guardian Council

Here are the president’s responsibilities:

– second in charge behind the Supreme Leader

– responsible for Iran’s economy (i.e. natural resources etcetera) and national budget

– executes the Supreme Leader’s foreign and domestic policies

– appoints ambassadors and government cabinet ministers

Presidents serve a four year term with the option of running for a second term with an option for a third non-consecutive term.  All presidential candidates are revised by the Guardian Council.  The presidential election is won by gaining an absolute majority; if this threshold is not met, a run-off vote is held between the two candidates that received the most votes. 

The Iranian Parliament is a 290 member legislative body which is publicly elected once every four years.  The parliament is responsible for drafting legislation, approving budgets and ratifying international treaties.

With that background on Iran’s political ecosystem and remembering Washington’s outrage at the possibility that an outside entity may have tried to impact the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, let’s look at what Washington has spent trying to influence Iranian politics by “promoting democracy” by fiscal year since fiscal 2004:

FY2004 – Foreign operations appropriation (P.L. 108-199) earmarked $1.5 million for “educational, humanitarian and non-governmental organizations and individuals inside Iran to support the advancement of democracy and human rights in Iran.” The State Department Bureau of Democracy and Labor (DRL) gave $1 million to a unit of Yale University, and $500,000 to National Endowment for Democracy.

FY2005 – $3 million from FY2005 foreign aid appropriation (P.L. 108-447) for democracy promotion. Priority areas: political party development, media, labor rights, civil society promotion, and human rights.

FY2006 – $11.15 for democracy promotion from regular FY2006 foreign aid appropriation (P.L. 109-102). $4.15 million administered by DRL and $7 million for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.

FY2006 – Total of $66.1 million (of $75 million requested) from FY2006 supplemental (P.L. 109-234): $20 million supp. for democracy promotion; $5 million for public diplomacy directed at the Iranian population; $5 million for cultural exchanges; and $36.1 million for Voice of America-TV and “Radio Farda” broadcasting. Broadcasting funds are provided through the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

FY2007 – FY2007 continuing resolution provided $6.55 million for Iran (and Syria) to be administered through DRL. $3.04 million was used for Iran. No funds were requested.

FY2008 – $60 million (of $75 million requested) is contained in Consolidated Appropriation (H.R. 2764, P.L. 110- 161), of which, according to the conference report $21.6 million is ESF for pro-democracy programs, including non-violent efforts to oppose Iran’s meddling in other countries. $7.9 million is from a “Democracy Fund” for use by DRL. The Appropriation also fully funded additional $33.6 million requested for Iran broadcasting: $20 million for VOA Persian service; and $8.1 million for Radio Farda; and $5.5 million for exchanges with Iran.

FY2009 – Request was for $65 million in ESF “to support the aspirations of the Iranian people for a democratic and open society by promoting civil society, civic participation, media freedom, and freedom of information.” H.R. 1105 (P.L. 111-8) provides $25 million for democracy promotion programs in the region, including in Iran.

FY2010 – $40 million requested and used for Near East Regional Democracy programming. Programs to promote human rights, civil society, and public diplomacy in Iran constitute a significant use of these region-wide funds.

FY2011 – $40 million requested and will be used for Near East Regional Democracy programs. Programming for Iran with these funds to be similar to FY2010.

FY2012  – $35 million for Near East Regional Democracy (NERD), and Iran-related use similar to FY2010 and FY2011.

FY2013 – $30 million for NERD, with Iran use similar to prior two fiscal years.

FY2014 – $30 million for NERD, with Iran use similar to prior fiscal years.

FY2015 – $30 million for Near East Regional Democracy, with Iran use similar to previous years. Request mentions funding to be used to help circumvent Internet censorship.

FY2016 – $30 million for NERD, with Iran use likely similar to prior years.

FY2017 – $30 million for NERD, with Iran use likely similar to prior years.

FY2018 –  $15 million requested with Iran use likely similar to prior years.

Since fiscal 2004, at least $500 million has been spent by Congress to promote democracy (i.e. the America’s preferred version of democracy) in Iran.

Let’s close with this quote from an updated version of the report issued in January 2018t:

The Trump Administration has not adopted a policy of regime change, but there have been several Administration statements that indicate support for that outcome. In his speech on May 21 in Saudi Arabia, President Trump stated that his Administration is hoping that Iran’s government will change to one that the Administration considers “just and righteous.” In testimony before two congressional committees in June 2017, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the Administration supports a “philosophy of regime change” for Iran (Senate Appropriations Committee) and that the Administration would “work toward support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government” (House Foreign Affairs Committee). In his October 13, 2017 policy announcement on Iran, President Trump appeared to indicate support for changing Iran’s regime by stating that:

“…we stand in total solidarity with the Iranian regime’s longest-suffering victims: its own people. The citizens of Iran have paid a heavy price for the violence and extremism of their leaders. The Iranian people long to—and they just are longing, to reclaim their country’s proud history, its culture, its civilization, its cooperation with its neighbors.”

Administration officials stated that President Trump, in his statements of support for the December 2017-January 2018 protests, was seeking to implement his administration’s policy to challenge and confront Iran’s regime where possible.” (my bold)

With Washington seeming to be gunning for a fight with Iran, it is only a matter of time before the Iranian political system is forced to defend itself against outside aggression.

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