New ‘Office of Iranian Affairs’ Outlined in State Department Cable

UPDATE: CNN has picked up the story.

The Bush administration this month “quietly orchestrated a major shift in U.S. policy toward Iran,” requesting $85 million for a plan “not just to contain Tehran’s nuclear ambitions but also to topple the Iranian government.” An unclassified State Department cable released this morning offers details on this new strategy. ThinkProgress has acquired a copy of the document, which you can read here.

The cable announces a new Office of Iranian Affairs, and serves as a casting call for Iran and Persian language experts. It states that the U.S. is establishing positions in the United Arab Emirates and developing “reporting” positions in countries with large Iranian exile communities, including Germany, Great Britain, and Azerbaijan, among others.

There are three serious problems with this plan:

1) It repeats the mistakes made in Iraq. One of the Bush administration’s greatest failures in Iraq was relying on the advice of exiles like Ahmed Chalabi, the disgraced Iraqi exile who misled the United States into Iraq, then failed even to win a seat in the latest Iraqi elections.

2) It is based on an irrelevant Cold War-era approach to democracy promotion. As Iran experts Charles Kupchan and Ray Takeyh point out, current conditions in Iran make “it likely that the administration’s new strategy will backfire and only strengthen Tehran’s hard-liners.” The U.S. should be working to raise the profile and influence of independent human rights defenders – not directing funds to Iranian exile groups with few roots in Iran.

3) It unwisely telegraphs our strategy. Even if the approach were the right one — and it is not — publicly announcing it like the State Department has makes it less likely to succeed. Democracy must come from within, and the United States needs to offer quiet support through non-governmental organizations.

As it tries to pick up the pieces for years of inaction and finally creates an Iran policy, the Bush administration should not make the same mistakes it did in Iraq.

Brian Katulis