Trump’s State Department spent over $1m in Iran to exploit unrest

Documents reveal ‘regime change’ aspirations pursued under cover of ‘democracy promotion’ programsNafeez AhmedInvestigative journalist, recovering academic, tracking the Crisis of Civilization.Posted Jan 18, 2018
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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.
AXIOM
New US government documents reveal that the Trump administration is intensifying efforts to undermine the Iranian regime, through a combination of diplomatic pressure, military encroachment, and continuing financing of domestic opposition groups.
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.”
INSIGHT
The Trump administration’s Iran policy shift reveals an increasing willingness to support Iran regime change efforts, depending on whether the geopolitical, economic and domestic opportunities to do so materialize.
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.”
INSIGHT
State Department ‘democracy promotion’ programs have been actively pursued to undermine the domestic legitimacy of the Iranian regime.
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.
AXIOM
The US government is currently spending at least $33 million a year on soft propaganda through Radio Farda and the VOA’s Persian Service to undermine Iran from within.
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.