This article was commissioned in partnership with Le Muslim Post
At the end of 2017, a dozen cities across Iran, including the capital Tehran, were rocked by spontaneous protests which continued into the New Year. The protests drew attention to the country’s deteriorating economic conditions, along with the regime’s abysmal human rights record.
They also paved the way for President Donald Trump’s announcement on January 12th that this would be a “last chance” for waiving US nuclear sanctions under the Iran nuclear deal for a further 60 days, after which the US would withdraw if its “disastrous flaws” cannot be fixed.
A range of recent official documents, from Congressional research to US foreign aid funding reports, throw new light on the Trump administration’s approach. The documents reveal the US government’s continued interest in triggering major political change in Iran to pull the country into the orbit of American interests. This includes the possibility of exploiting political unrest and other crises – including a worsening water crisis – to turn popular opinion against the regime.
Iran’s unrest has mostly been driven by a convergence of domestic ecological, energy and economic crises. The State Department has sought to exploit these crises to undermine the legitimacy of the regime, by funding opposition groups as well as anti-regime broadcasting to the tune of tens of millions of dollars a year.
One State Department funding document, for instance, refers to a project to use Iran’s growing water crisis to drum up public anger against regime “mismanagement”. To date, US government records show that the Trump administration has spent over $1m, at least, since 2016, on financing anti-regime activism within Iran.
The policy is not new, though. Altogether, since 2006, successive US administrations have invested tens of millions of dollars a year on ‘democracy promotion’ efforts in Iran, serving as cover for longstanding ‘regime change’ aspirations.
Much of the media programming funded by the State Department has focused on glorifying the reign of the Shah of Iran, the brutal US-UK backed dictator who was deposed by the 1979 revolution. The propaganda appears to have worked, with many participants in the latest protests calling for the Shah’s exiled son, Reza Pahlavi, to return to power in Iran.
Militarization of the Iran strategy
Two Congressional documents published early last year, and one released just a month before the protests, throw light on the Trump administration’s policy of escalation in Iran. The documents are research reports published by the Congressional Research Service written by Kenneth Katzman, a former CIA analyst specialising in Iran, Iraq and the Gulf states.
One document, ‘Iran’s Foreign and Defense Policies’ dated February 6, 2017, describes how the administration’s announcement placing Iran “officially on notice” could signal that “the new Administration might change US rules of engagement to include the use of deadly force in future incidents.”
The government’s decision to “at least maintain, if not increase, defense ties to the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] states” are also “pivotal to US efforts to counter Iran”:
“The Trump Administration… has returned to earlier characterizations of Iran as an adversary whose malign activities and ballistic missile tests must be met with US responses.”
The document warns that escalating indirect US pressure on Iran could lead to the pre-emptive collapse of the nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA): “… military action to counter Iran’s support for the Houthis, or against Iranian ships in the Gulf – could lead to a pattern of escalation that causes a collapse of the JCPOA.”
The document also highlights the potential for an escalation of military activity to counter Iran led by the Gulf regimes:
“Factors that could force a shift in Iran’s foreign policy could include the expansion or institutionalization of a Saudi-led coalition of Arab Sunni states that might succeed in defeating movements and governments backed by Iran.”
A further Congressional document authored by Katzman titled ‘Iran: Politics, Human Rights, and US Policy’, dated February 17, 2017, provides further detail on the Trump administration’s attempts to escalate pressure on Iran.
Under the heading ‘military options’, the document notes that like Obama, President Trump has kept “potential military action against Iran” on the table, but has moved considerably closer to this option:
“The Trump Administration has not stated a position on whether it would seek to change Iran’s regime, but its characterization of Iran as a US adversary could suggest that the Administration might support efforts to oust the Iranian regime should opportunities to do so present themselves.”
Sanitizing regime change with ‘democracy promotion’
The report goes on to point out that while the US government has not yet pursued outright regime change, pressure to incite internal policy changes from the Iranian government is being exerted through ‘democracy promotion’ programs:
“In the absence of all-out US pursuit of regime change, successive Administrations and Congress have promoted political evolution in Iran through ‘democracy promotion’ and sanctions on Iranian human rights abuses.”
Under Congressional legislation, “Iran democracy promotion” funds have been “obligated through DRL [Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Affairs] and the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs in partnership with USAID. Some of the funds have also been used for cultural exchanges, public diplomacy, and broadcasting to Iran.”
Bankrolling anti-regime propaganda
The US government’s ‘democracy promotion’ projects in Iran have focused heavily on influence through information, according to the Congressional documents.
Projects include “Iran-specific US broadcasting services such as “Radio Farda (‘tomorrow,’ in Farsi) [which] began under Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), in partnership with the Voice of America (VOA), in 2002.”
Based in Prague, Radio Farda broadcasts 24 hours a day and has 59 full time employees. Its budget is approximately $11 million per year. The document denies that any US government assistance has been provided to Iranian exile-run stations.
VOA briefings confirm that its separate Persian Service, previously called Persian News Network (PNN) costs “about $20 million per year”. The service consists of Internet, an hour of radio a day, and six hours of television rebroadcast throughout the day.
In August 2014, VOA officials told the Congressional Research Service that a greater effort was made to reach “young, educated, anti-regime Iranians who are looking for signs of US official support.” VOA Persian is now viewed weekly by nearly one-in-four adults in Iran.
Looking forward to an ‘uprising’
The document further confirms that US State Department ‘democracy promotion’ programs in Iran have been escalating since 2006, including an effort to increase “the presence of Persian-speaking US diplomats in US diplomatic missions around Iran,” partly to “facilitate Iranians [to] participate in US democracy-promotion programs.”
Earlier that year, the State Department established its Office of Iranian Affairs, to channel funds to groups that could aid opposition factions within Iran. The Office, according to the new Congressional document “is reportedly engaged in contacts with US-based exile groups.”
A third Congressional document by Katzman, published in November 2017, observes that “Domestic Iranian factors could cause Iran’s foreign policy to shift.” Among these factors, the report says that:
“An uprising in Iran or other event that changes the regime could precipitate policy changes that either favor or are adverse to US interests. The unexpected departure from the scene of the Supreme Leader could change Iran’s foreign policy sharply, depending on the views of his successor.”
The National Endowment for Democracy
In addition to the tens of millions of dollars a year supporting information influence operations through some of these various media and broadcasting efforts, US government funding documents provide further information on funding for ‘democracy promotion’ efforts in recent years.
USAID and State Department records reveal that the Trump administration provided at least $1,146,196 to various opposition NGOs in Iran, from 2016 through some of 2017. The funds were provided by the State Department through the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Full data for the year 2017 is not yet available.
For context, this is considerably more than what Russian-linked actors reportedly paid Twitter, Facebook and Google combined to influence the American elections (a maximum total of around $447,100).
The NED is a non-profit organization funded by US Congress via the State Department, founded in 1983 originally to support anti-Soviet foreign political movements.
Declassified documents released by the Reagan Presidential Library confirm that then CIA director William Casey played a lead role in the NED’s establishment, seeing it as a way to provide legitimate cover to fund groups that would undermine or overthrow foreign governments inimical to US interests.
As of January 2017, the NED has been chaired by Dr Judy Shelton, who served on Trump’s economic advisory team during the 2016 presidential campaign.
For the vast majority of the projects funded in Iran, the recipient NGOs supported have not been disclosed.
The Trump administration ‘democracy promotion’ funding continues a seamless policy pursued by successive Democrat and Republican administrations. The Obama administration spent a total of $1,802,537 from 2014 to 2015.
Exploiting citizen discontent
NED records describing these projects show that State Department funding has gone to projects working with a range of Iranian groups on the ground.
One describes its mission being to “engage members of the Iranian intelligentsia in public deliberation on the social, economic, and political prospects of a democratic Iran”. Another refers to the instrumentalization of human rights activism to “enhance communication and information access for Iranian activists.”
One project aims to develop and consolidate a network of “democratically minded jurists in Iran.” A further project says its objective is “to galvanize citizens to press for greater transparency and accountability,” and yet another explains that the Iran-based grant recipient “will build the capacity of Iranian citizens to conduct community-level political process monitoring through a focused training program.”
One NED project funded by the State Department in 2016, for instance, seeks to exploit Iran’s escalating water crisis to ramp up hostility toward the government. According to the NED, the project’s goal is:
“To mobilize public participation in initiatives aimed at ending widespread water mismanagement by national and local authorities. Project activities will raise civil society and public awareness of the role that authorities’ mismanagement of water has played in Iran’s current drought conditions, endeavoring to elevate the issue for debate in the public political sphere.”
The US foreign policy establishment has closely watched the impact of Iran’s water crisis over the last few years. A recent Scientific American piece, for instance, reports the observations of senior US policy wonks from the Atlantic Council and Brookings Institution, which have significant influence on high-level US foreign policy discourse.
The analysts told Scientific American that while the immediate factors behind the protests were low wages, growing mistrust of political leaders, and the collapse of financial institutions (much of which has been amplified by ongoing US-backed sanctions), underlying drivers include the impact of climate change.
Iran has experienced a cycle of intensifying extreme droughts since the 1990s, driven largely by climate change, but exacerbated by official water mismanagement. This has impacted crop production, affecting the lives of rural farmers and worsening already high unemployment rates for young people, even as the state has responded by slashing subsidies in response to mounting economic woes.
Drought conditions are expected to worsen under business-as-usual climate projections.
Meanwhile, under Iran’s new budget fuel prices are pitched to rise by 50 per cent, welfare payments to 30 million Iranians will be cut, while sponsorship of religious and clerical institutions will increase. Climate change, in other words, is amplifying an already unsustainable economic path.
Having acknowledged that, however, these Congressional and State Department records do provide clear evidence of ongoing US efforts to exploit domestic grievances in Iran to undermine the regime from within.
Using human rights to promote monarchy
While the US government routinely uses Iran’s abysmal human rights record as a core justification for its anti-regime efforts, its alliance with similarly abusive Gulf regimes like Saudi Arabia – in the name of isolating and weakening the Iranian regime – discredits the idea that US policy is genuinely motivated by humanitarian or democratic considerations.
Longstanding US interests in Iran are candidly described in a 1977 research memorandum published by the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, authored by then SSI analyst and Iran specialist, Dr. Robert Ghobad Irani.
“In terms of population, resources, land, and power potential, Iran and Saudi Arabia remain the two principal centers of power in the Persian Gulf area, with Iran clearly being in the leading position. The principal significance of Iran and Saudi Arabia lies in their huge oil reserves and tremendous oil production. The Gulf area contains approximately 70 percent of the known oil reserves of the Western World and presently produces about 30 percent of the Western World's annual oil supply. The main producers are Iran and Saudi Arabia.”
The memorandum goes on to highlight the need for the US to support a specific brand of pro-Western leadership:
“Ideally, both the United States and the USSR must improve their understanding of the rapid and complex changes that are taking place in the Gulf area. They should mutually agree to encourage moderate, pragmatic, and farsighted leaders in the area.”
The memorandum celebrated the overthrow of the democratically-elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, lamenting that his government oversaw “the nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company”; and welcomed the “return to power” of the previously deposed monarch, the Shah – which was, we now know, covertly orchestrated by a coup backed by MI6 and the CIA.
According to Amnesty International in 1975, the Shah’s Iran retained “the highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture which is beyond belief.” This was not considered a problem for US strategy.
“Tehran and Riyadh, assisted by the West, will play decisive roles in maintaining a promonarchial balance of power in the Gulf region,” the US Army SSI paper said. “As long as these two major regional powers remain moderate, pro-Western, and anti-Communist, the balance of power in the Gulf area will also remain favorable to the West.”
This US vision was dramatically overturned two years later under the 1979 revolution.
A Pentagon study released in late 2017, unveiled by INSURGE, similarly conceded that the real reason for US hostility to “revolutionary forces” such as Iran or North Korea has little to do with any threat to the West, but more that they are “neither the products of, nor are they satisfied with, the contemporary order.” The key problem is that they are blocking US expansionism:
“At a minimum, they intend to destroy the reach of the US-led order into what they perceive to be their legitimate sphere of influence. They are also resolved to replace that order locally with a new rule set dictated by them.”
But the leaning toward undemocratic solutions has not waned. In early 2017, the son of the late Shah, Reza Pahlavi, was broadcast into Iran via the US government-funded VOA and Radio Farda, advocating the idea of “peaceful regime change,” through protest and civil disobedience.
Such pro-Shah Western broadcasting offers few if any criticisms of the repressions and inequality of the era, instead romanticizing it as a glorious past.
Pahlavi had previously written formally to Trump to congratulate him on winning the 2016 elections.
In the recent demonstrations, many protestors across Iran chanted pro-Shah slogans calling for the re-instatement of monarchical rule, such as “Reza Shah, rest in peace”, “What a mistake we made by taking part in the revolution” and “Bring back the Shah”.
The way forward
The Trump administration has adopted an approach to Iran which appears designed to justify a more militarized strategy, aimed at weakening – and ultimately toppling – the incumbent regime. Generating a justification to torpedo the Iran nuclear deal seems to be a core component of this strategy.
This approach, however, only aggravates tensions, encouraging Iran to crackdown brutally on domestic democracy activists and opposition groups on the pretext that they are funded by the United States. It also threatens to destabilize an already volatile region, and takes us closer to a nuclear confrontation.
The US government still does not appear to have learned its lesson that democracy cannot be imposed from outside.
In the absence of a significant US change of course, other countries can – with a view to safeguard against a rapid deterioration of international security – move to leverage their relationships with the US.
Iran, equally, has failed to grasp that its increasingly draconian efforts to crackdown on public opinion and legitimate anti-regime sentiment at home only fuels this dissent.
On the other hand, Iran has also failed to understand and manage the impact of a convergence of domestic economic, energy and environmental crises.
Iran’s democratic civil society movement should, in turn, be mindful of how legitimate opposition to the regime’s authoritarian tendencies is being actively exploited by foreign forces, whose self-serving geopolitical goals could destabilize the entire Middle East.
The irony of course is that, with the US government pursuing its anti-Iran agenda in alliance with some of the region’s most undemocratic human rights abusers, the Trumpian and Iranian regimes seem more similar everyday.
Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is the founding editor of INSURGE intelligence. Nafeez is a 16-year investigative journalist, formerly of The Guardian where he reported on the geopolitics of social, economic and environmental crises. Nafeez reports on ‘global system change’ for VICE’s Motherboard, and on regional geopolitics for Middle East Eye. He has bylines in The Independent on Sunday, The Independent, The Scotsman, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, New York Observer, The New Statesman, Prospect, Le Monde diplomatique, among other places. He has twice won the Project Censored Award for his investigative reporting; twice been featured in the Evening Standard’s top 1,000 list of most influential Londoners; and won the Naples Prize, Italy’s most prestigious literary award created by the President of the Republic. Nafeez is also a widely-published and cited interdisciplinary academic specializing in complex systems analysis.