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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Obama’s Third Option In Iran

This item by J.P. Green was first published on June 29, 2009.
Gabriel Schoenfeld’s article in today’s Wall St. Journal, “What If Obama Did Want to Help Iran’s Democrats?” argues that the Obama Administration may be crippling its Iran policy by not recognizing the efficacy of “covert political action.” As Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. and a resident scholar at Princeton’s Witherspoon Institute explains Obama’s problem:

In a better world, toppling this vicious regime and altering the tide of history would be a primary objective of U.S. foreign policy. Yet even if President Obama miraculously came to that conclusion, how could he realize such an objective? This is a useful question to ask because it reveals how much the United States has disarmed itself in the vital realm of intelligence.
…Harsh criticism of such operations — beginning in the 1970s when all the CIA’s secrets spilled out — is what prompted the U.S. to dismantle its capabilities in covert political action. Interfering in the internal affairs of other countries, legions of agency critics said, was both immoral and illegal.
As a matter of law, the critics are right. Such covert action is indeed illegal. But legality is beside the point. Espionage is by definition illegal and yet all countries engage in it. This is what the Soviet Union did in Italy, and it is what Iran, by organizing terrorist structures in the Middle East, Europe and elsewhere, has been doing intensively for 30 years.

Schoenfeld’s article, subtitled “The CIA is no longer in the business of influencing politics abroad,” credits CIA funding of centrist political parties in Italy during the 1950’s as an effective strategy to counter the rapid growth of Italy’s Communist Party, thereby helping Italy to remain a “stable democracy today.” But Shoenfeld’s characterization of Italy’s Communist Party as undemocratic is unfair, since they did participate in elections.
If covert ops have any legitimacy, they should be narrowly focused on supporting pro-democratic, not exclusively “centrist”, forces in dictatorships and in nations at risk of becomming dictatorships. Using U.S. resources to oppose democratically-elected governments, as we did in Chile, or to influence elections in other nations, is immoral, unwise and can easily backfire.
But if Schoenfeld is right that U.S. support of centrist political parties was the pivotal element in achieving our foreign policy objectives in Italy, however misguided, without expensive military action, then perhaps there is an instructive strategic lesson for our policy toward Iran.
The debate over U.S. policy toward Iran is usually cast in terms of military vs. diplomatic action, with very little discussion about the possibilities of covert political operations, or even expanding our propaganda outreach in Iran. The latter wouldn’t be hard since our current effort is so weak. The current issue of The New Yorker for example, features an eyewitness report on the June 15th protest against the stolen election, in which the author notes,

…the government tries to jam all foreign TV stations—in particular, the BBC’s Persian-language channel. This channel, beaming images and reports sent by normal Iranian citizens back into the country, has been hugely influential in spreading news of the protests to Iranians who would otherwise have relied on state television or the inferior American-based Persian-language channels.

Peruse recent public opinion polls on the topic of U.S. policy toward Iran going back 5 years or more, and you won’t find any mention of enhancing intelligence, propaganda or covert ops as a choice in polling questions. (A CBS News/New York Times poll conducted 9/21-24, 2008 indicates the public favored “diplomacy now” over “military action now” in Iraq by a margin of 61 to 10 percent)
Perhaps the pollsters assume the public has a “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude regarding covert ops, or they include it conceptually as an intelligence function under the rubric of “diplomacy.” But if the U.S. becomes more vigorously engaged in the struggle to win hearts and minds as a third option, it could prove to be a highly effective use of our resources in achieving foreign policy objectives in trouble spots like Iran. (More on this topic here)
According to Schoenfeld, the U.S. is not getting much credit for our disengagement from Iranian politics:

The great irony in all this is that even as the U.S. seeks to claim the moral high ground by not “meddling” — to use Mr. Obama’s term — we and our allies are getting blamed all the same. “There are riots and attacks in the streets that are orchestrated from the outside in a bid to destabilize the country’s Islamic regime,” says Sheikh Naim Qassem, a ranking figure of Hezbollah, Iran’s obedient instrument in Lebanon.

A fair point, Perhaps some thoughtful “meddling,” if not by the CIA, then by other U.S. agencies concerned with foreign policy could help encourage a stable democracy in Iran. Diplomacy is almost always a better choice than military action. But strengthening our on-the-ground intelligence in Iran and in other Arab nations and using it to promote the spread of democracy, instead of U.S. military dominance, should become a leading strategic objective.

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