In 2006, the Alliance served as a vehicle for Khatami to visit the U.S. at a useful juncture for Iran. In the summer of that year, the U.N. Security Council produced the first of what is by now a series of resolutions meant to stop Iran’s uranium-enrichment program, and gave Iran an August 31 deadline – which Iran ignored. About that same time, Khatami, as one of the Alliance’s guiding experts, got a visa to enter the U.S. to attend an Alliance meeting held September 5–6 in New York. He parlayed that visit into a two-week road show through a number of American cities, slamming U.S. policy toward Iran as he went, and appearing as a guest in Washington at a fund-raising dinner for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Until 2009, the U.S. government had steered clear of the Alliance of Civilizations — mindful, perhaps, of its Iranian roots and other troubling ties. But when President Obama took office in 2009, his administration quickly decided to join the Alliance’s “Group of Friends” — a collection of countries and international organizations, including the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, that actively support and promote the Alliance. During Obama’s first presidential trip to the Middle East, in April 2009, he dropped in on an Alliance forum in Istanbul.
How is it that the otherwise obscure Alliance seems to attract so much top brass? The Alliance doesn’t occupy a regular position within the sprawling U.N. system. Instead, it inhabits the amorphous category of an “initiative” of the secretary general, managed as a sort of private club within the U.N. and bankrolled by its own special, voluntary trust fund. Its declared mission is so diffuse that it could mean almost anything: bridging divides, with a focus on education, youth, media and migration. This means that while the Alliance enjoys a U.N. label and broad access to U.N. services, including diplomatically privileged procurement and travel arrangements, it is also designed to operate outside the usual constraints of U.N. policy and budget debates.
Officially, the Alliance runs on a relatively small budget (by U.N. standards). With a secretariat staff of 14, it spent about $4 million last year, according to an Alliance spokesman. A list of trust-fund contributors provided by the Alliance shows that in any given year the number of countries giving money has never topped 30. The list does not show anything from the U.S. (The State Department did not respond to a question about whether the U.S. has donated any money.) The chief donors since 2005 have been Spain and Turkey, co-sponsors of the Alliance, as well as Qatar, whose representative is now taking over from Spain’s as head of the Alliance. Last year, Saudi Arabia — home to the OIC — chipped in $1 million.
But such sums are merely what’s visible in the highly summarized public accounts. The Alliance itself notes in its report on “costs and funding” that the trust fund does not give the full picture. The Alliance also accepts contributions in kind from countries, international organizations, foundations, corporations, and so on. That is how the Alliance is able to convene lavish global forums such as the jamboree at which Erdogan just spoke in Vienna. It was sponsored by a substantial list of donors, including, for example, the BMW Group, the City of Vienna, and the OPEC Fund for International Development.
It’s just possible that for the most active members of the Alliance, such as Turkey, Qatar, and Iran, the most important assets of this “initiative” are neither the money in the trust fund nor its actual products. The real value of this initiative is the license to coopt the machinery of the U.N. for these actors to stage their own show. U.S. taxpayers fork over billions every year to sustain the basic institution of the UN. But for the modest price of $4.08 million, the grand total of what Turkey has paid in to the Alliance of Civilizations since its founding in 2005, Erdogan was able to stand on the stage of a palace in Vienna, godfather of a very special U.N. gathering that was once just a gleam in Khatami’s eye and, before a world audience, denounce the Jews.
— Claudia Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and heads its Investigative Reporting Project.