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The State Department’s Dead Parrot By: Kenneth R. Timmerman
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, April 20, 2006

In the Monty Python skit, a man brings a parrot back to the store where he purchased him half an hour earlier, complaining that the parrot is dead.

The shop owner insists it must be resting, but the man says he discovered that the only reason that parrot was sitting up at all was because it had been nailed to the perch in its cage.

Like the shop owner, the State Department is promoting a long-dead policy of supporting “moderates” in Tehran, under the guise of promoting “reform” and “change.”

Not only is State making a monumental mistake: it has fallen for one of the oldest tricks of Iran’s clerical elite.

Over the past three years, President Bush has accumulated a tremendous capital of goodwill with the Iranian people because of his outspoken support for their struggle for freedom.

The president has made clear in private meetings with Iranian exiles that his public statements were not mere rhetoric. He really meant it when he called Iran part of an “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union speech.

He meant every word he uttered after the regime disqualified some 2,400 candidates for parliamentary elections in February 2004 and he said, “The United States supports the Iranian people’s aspiration to live in freedom, enjoy their God-given rights, and determine their own destiny.”

He meant it when he spoke to the Voice of America’s Persian service on August 17, 2004. “There is a significant diaspora here in the United States of Iranian-Americans who long for their homeland to be liberated and free. We’re working with them to send messages to their loved ones and their relatives…say[ing], ‘Listen, we hear your voice, we know you want to be free, and we stand with you in your desire to be free.’”

And he meant it again when he addressed the Iranian people during his State of the Union speech this year. “Our nation hopes one day to be the closest of friends with a free and democratic Iran.”

Somehow, that message hasn’t made it over to Foggy Bottom.

At the State Department, where Condoleeza Rice has admirably pledged to spend $85 million this year to support the pro-freedom movement in Iran, careerists have taken over the show and are steering her in the wrong direction.

Of that $85 million, nearly $50 million has been tentatively ear-marked to expand the Voice of America and the Persian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Both radios need to improve the quality of their broadcasts and, especially, their political content, before they deserve another dime in taxpayer funding. But that is a story I will treat in depth in a future column.

The rest of the money is being spent on a variety of programs led by former Tehran regime officials, student leaders, and U.S. academics who believe the Tehran regime can be reformed, but does not need to be changed.

This is sweet music to the ears of Iran’s ruling mullahs and to Iran’s boy president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

They all want “reform.” After all, Ahmadinejad campaigned for president on a platform of “reform.” He was going to drive out corrupt mullahs, such as the “reformist” Rafsanjani, and reform Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

Mohsen Sazegara was one of the founders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps. He fell out with the regime in the late 1980s, published a series of reformist newspapers, and was jailed for nearly two years.

He came to the United States last year at the invitation of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and with the blessing of the Department of State.

Sazegara’s break with the regime was sincere. But since coming to the United States, he has teamed up with “reformers” such as Akbar Atri, Ali Afshari, and Ramin Ahmadi of Yale University, who have gotten the lion’s share of the “pro-freedom” moneys from the State Department.

Instead of providing seed money to a home-grown pro-democracy movement, State Department has sponsored Atri to go on a tour of U.S. college campuses, and is now talking of providing him with a radio station to broadcast his message of “reform” into Iran. They have also thrown money at Ramin Ahmadi by the million – initially, to sponsor a data base of Iranian human rights abuses (something that a number of other groups had already pulled together privately over the past decades, on shoestring funding).

It was Ahmadi who sponsored the ill-fated “non-violent training workshops” in Dubai that backfired last year, sources familiar with the program told me.

The idea of training Iranian activists in the weapons of non-violent conflict is an excellent one. But as reported by the Washington Post, the problem with the Dubai workshops was the choice of people who were selected to attend.

They were reformers, not activists seeking to grow a pro-democracy movement.

They didn’t want to change the regime in Tehran; they wanted to make it stronger, just as Iran’s reformist clerics have sought to do. When they found out that the State Department – and not Yale University - was financing the workshops, they fled back to Tehran, where they denounced the United States publicly.

Roozbeh Farahanipour was one of the leaders of the student rebellion at Tehran University in July 1999. He remembers Ali Afshari well.

“When we tried to get students to take the demonstrations from the university to the streets of Tehran, Afshari came along behind us in a truck with a sound system, shouting at the crowd to not follow us because we were against the revolution,” Farahanipour recalls.

That is one of the tricks the regime likes to play. It periodically gives leash to “reformers” and allows them to publish newspapers and speak out against regime excesses, for as long as they don’t cross the red line and demand true freedom and a change of regime.

Several authentic, grass roots movements for change in Iran do exist. One is led by Farahanipour and is called Marzeporgohar, or Iranians for a Secular Republic.

Another is the Iran Nation’s Party (sometimes referred to as the Iran People’s Party in the West). It was led by Darioush Forouhar until he and his wife were brutally hacked to death by regime thugs in Tehran in November 1998. The current leader is Khosrow Seif.

Yet another authentic pro-democracy group worthy of U.S. funding is the Iran Referendum Movement. Prompted initially by Sazegara’s campaign that collected 35,000 signatures on the Internet in favor of an internationally-monitored referendum on the regime, the movement now has chapters in 35 cities worldwide who sent 250 delegates to a founding convention in Brussels, Belgium, this past December.

They elected a 15-member Central Committee, who in turn selected a 7-member Executive Board. Although they have extensive networks inside Iran, they can’t seem to get the eyes and ears of the State Department.

But because the Referendum Movement is calling for an end of the Islamic Republic, the groups being funded by the State Department have all refused to have anything to do with it. The State Department’s choices are reformers, not revolutionaries.

Sazegara himself told me last year that the reform movement was “dead.” And yet, the State Department, through lack of imagination or its atavistic tendency toward blind man’s bluff, refuses to recognize it.

Like Monty Python’s dead parrot, the State Department Iran “experts” have nailed the reform movement to the perch, and keep selling it again and again, pretending that it’s alive.

But no matter how they dress it up, it’s still a dead parrot.

Or, as the Monty Python character put it, “This parrot is no more!… 'E's kicked the bucket, 'e's shuffled off 'is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisibile!! THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!!”

Alas, not in Washington

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Kenneth R. Timmerman was nominated for the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize along with John Bolton for his work on Iran. He is Executive Director of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, and author of Countdown to Crisis: the Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran (Crown Forum: 2005).

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