One of the most serious and sincere arguments against the Bush administration’s democratization funding for Iranian civil society was that it stigmatized that very same civil society and enabled the Iranian regime to taint everyone as somehow an agent of the United States. (This is an argument I disagree with for reasons I explain in this essay).
If the logic of avoiding anything which the Iranian regime may twist to stigmatize its opposition is consistent, then proponents of dialogue should by the same logic now avoid their efforts to engage and participate in Track II dialogue. In this weekend’s show trial, according to a translation by Ali Alfoneh, arrested Iranian American scholar Kian Tajbakhsh fingered attempts at dialogue by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Haleh Esfandiari, the Soros Foundation, Columbia University’s Gary Sick, Naser Hadian, Hadi Semati, and folks from the Carnegie Endowment, and others as part of a grand conspiracy. The natural conclusion, therefore, is that engagement harms the reform movement.
Of course, I think that this conclusion would be bonkers. The point is that while many Iranian American scholars limit U.S. policy options to engagement or Track II dialogue, we should not gear U.S. policy towards what makes the Iranian regime comfortable. When we’re going to be accused of crimes no matter what we do, we might as well do what we think is right or in the U.S. long-term interest. The Tehran show trials show that Track II dialogue taints just as much as democratization funding and intellectual consistency from the Track II crowd should require either cessation of dialogue or reconsideration of other forms of assistance for those bold enough to accept it and able to deliver according to pre-determined State Department metrics. Perhaps it’s time for the Obama administration, which wants to engage, to drop its animosity toward democratization and more material assistance to civil society and independent Persian media.