Six Questions for Laura Rozen on Iran

BY Ken Silverstein

May 4, 2007

Laura Rozen reports from Washington, DC as a national security correspondent for The Washington Monthly and a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, is a frequent contributor to National Journal and Mother Jones, and writes the blog War and Piece. She's better informed and sourced than just about anyone writing on Iran, and consistently breaks news and offers smart analysis. I recently asked her six questions about the Bush Administration's Iran policy.

1. How would you describe the Bush Administration's strategy towards Iran?

The administration's Iran policy was for years somewhat paralyzed by Iraq and an internal argument inside the administration between those who advocate “regime change” vs. those who advocate “behavior change.” Led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the administration has come out pretty clearly in favor of “behavior change” towards Iran in recent months. The current effort to get Iran to abandon its nuclear program is headed by Rice's deputy, Nick Burns, and its goal is to create international diplomatic and economic pressure to isolate Iran. In return, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany, have agreed to suspend U.N. sanctions on Iran for the duration of talks and have offered Iran pages and pages of inducements for giving up its nuclear program. The full list of incentives is unpublished, but it includes a nuclear energy program that would keep enriched fuel offshore, as well as economic inducements, such as membership in the W.T.O.

There's a second track of U.S. policy to Iran which involves promoting democracy in Iran over the longer term. As part of that, the U.S. has set up "listening posts" in countries with large Iranian communities—the U.A.E., Azerbaijan, Germany, Turkey, the U.K. –and has created a virtual U.S. embassy for Iran in neighboring Dubai, where it talks to people coming out from Iran, arranges cultural events, and almost certainly gathers intelligence. All this said, the "behavior change" advocates are opposed by people in and out of the administration who still advocate for regime change. This side argues that you could never trust any agreement reached with the current Iranian government and that holding direct talks mounts to appeasement of a brutal regime that sponsors terrorism.

2. Who are the major players in the regime change camp?

There are a few civilians who were brought into the Pentagon during the first term to essentially pursue a regime change option. Some are still there working for a small six-person Iran office whose de facto head is Abram Shulsky, who formerly led the controversial Office of Special Plans. In the White House, some in the Vice President's office are believed to be skeptical that Tehran will alter its nuclear plans in response to diplomatic or economic pressure. A few people who worked for Liz Cheney at the State Department also favor regime change for Iran, and Syria too. Outside of the administration, Richard Perle and Michael Ledeen at the American Enterprise Institute champion the idea of an Iranian opposition movement rising up to overthrow the regime with American support. There's another group of mostly conservative former officials who want the U.S. to take the Mujahedeen e-Khalq off the list of terrorist groups and work with them to overthrow the Tehran regime. But Ledeen has spoken negatively about the MEK, which is despised by other Iranian opposition groups for being a cult and having fought against Iran during the Iran-Iraq war.

3. How do these people believe regime change will unfold?

The group led by Perle and Ledeen argue that with sufficient U.S. support, and training, a coalition of Iranian groups—students, exiles, ethnic minorities, unions, and civic society groups—could topple the Iranian regime. Yet many people who have recently spent time in Iran say that any such revolution in Iran can't be controlled from outside, isn't imminent, and that overt U.S. support could be dangerous for those involved. It's all about interpretations of reality, as it was with the debate about overthrowing Saddam Hussein. One wonders if those advocating for heavy Washington involvement see that strategy as a means of deepening U.S. involvement to a point that military confrontation ultimately becomes inevitable.

I know several of the Iranians who are working to promote democracy from the outside, and am often amazed that they feel the American government must get behind their movement before anything can happen in Iran. It's so different from what you see in opposition movements in other countries, where the American role was far more limited. For some reason, a segment of the Iranian diaspora is fixated on the U.S. government being the prime driver of regime change.

4. The Bush Administration has appropriated tens of millions of dollars to “promote democracy” Iran. Who is receiving that money?

A State Department official involved with the Iran democracy portfolio recently told me that approximately $66 million was approved by Congress, with half going to U.S. government-funded broadcasters—the Voice of America Farsi language service and Radio Farda. There's currently a fight over the broadcasting content, with hardliners such as Senator Tom Coburn arguing that the Farsi language broadcasting should be more aggressively hostile to the Tehran regime and promote uprisings. The list of recipients of the other $33 million is classified, in order to protect recipients who may be targeted by the Iran regime. But part of that money has reportedly been distributed through U.S.-based human rights groups and outfits such as Freedom House, the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Republican Institute, and the National Democratic Institute.

5. How has Iran reacted to that program?

The Tehran regime has long had a truly horrific record of jailing and torturing students, bloggers, journalists, academics, trade unionists, women demonstrators, and think-tank people with ties to western colleagues, and even the lawyers for some of these people. Since the Bush Administration announced that it would fund opposition groups, the Iranian government has arrested intellectuals, writers, and activists who have participated in conferences abroad that were sponsored by private NGOs, and accused them of being involved in American-backed efforts to overthrow the regime. Surely if the U.S. wanted to promote democracy in Iran, it would have been better not to discuss it so loudly. In making these high-profile announcements, perhaps the Bush Administration was trying to signal to Congress, the public and the Iranian diaspora that this is something it is committed to. The international consequences may not have been carefully thought out.

6. How will the conflict over Iran's nuclear program be resolved? Is there likely to be a military confrontation between the U.S. and Iran before Bush leaves office?

Burns and Rice have been somewhat successful in cobbling together an international alliance to isolate Iran, and it's possible that a North Korea-style agreement could be pulled off. I think that's what Rice and Burns are hoping to achieve; there's not a great desire at the State Department or the Pentagon for another war. Some of this depends on what happens in Iraq and the larger region. If by September the “surge” is deemed to be ineffective, the Bush Administration may seek to blame Iran for its continuing difficulties. So I would not be surprised later this fall to see an uptick in Iran-bashing from elements of the administration and associated constituencies trying to gin up confrontation.

(Harper's Magazine – 4 May, 2007)

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