In the citation for President Obama’s award of the Nobel peace prize, the Norwegian Nobel Academy mentioned that his style of leadership would bring in a new era for human rights and democracy – among the many other wondrous things that are to be expected from the president. Unfortunately, the academy must have failed to talk to the human rights groups working in support of the Iranian people. As reported by Kenneth Timmerman in newsmax.com, the Obama administration has actually cut funding in support of pro-democracy activists. For all those, who want to see regime change in Iran, preferably by peaceful means, this is a deeply troubling development that sends the wrong signals to the world about American priorities and values. In terms of public diplomacy, this country is now signaling that dealing with autocratic regimes is more important than supporting the rights of the people they oppress. It is a complete reversal of the efforts made by the Bush administration to help develop civil society within Iran.
Back in June when the Iranian people took to the streets to protest against the fraudulent election results that returned Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power, many here were inspired by their courage and the hope that Iran had finally turned a corner. The Obama administration, on the contrary, was stung by the Iranian allegation that it was supporting the demonstrators, and as a result zeroed out the funding for Iranian pro-democracy programs in the State Department budget. For instance, reports Mr. Timmermann, Yale University’s Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, was denied a $2.7 million grant, at a time when Iran was in clear violation of human rights, right in front of the television screens of the world.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discussed what the Obama administration sees as a difficult dilemma with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on August 9. The Obama administration, she said, was torn between their desire to engage the regime and their sympathy for the protesters: “And we knew that, if we stepped in too soon, too hard, the attention might very well shift and the leadership would try to use us to unify the country against the protesters. And that was — it was a hard judgment call. But I think we, in retrospect, handled it pretty well.”
“Now, behind the scenes, we were doing a lot, as you know,” she said, citing the State Department’s intervention with the management of Twitter to keep the website open for Iranian bloggers, an often cited, but modest contribution from the United States, the most powerful democracy in the world.
Meanwhile, writes Mr. Timmermann, Congress is stepping up to the plate. In July, Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s bill, the Victims of Iranian Censorship (VOICE) act, passed the Senate and has been incorporated into the annual defense appropriations bill. It will mean more money for Farsi-language broadcasts by the Voice of America and Radio Farda, and it also authorizes the State Department to spend up to $20 million to develop new technologies to counter Internet censorship in Iran. $5 million is also included for human rights documentation. While the Senate and the House will have to reconcile their versions of the bill, it is critically important that members are mindful of the importance of the Iranian people at a time when the White House has turned a blind eye to their plight. Neither the Iranian, nor the American people are served by this turn to real politik in the White House.