Overview The Coalition for Democracy in Iran (CDI) is one of numerous pressure groups created by neoconservatives that focus on changing U.S. foreign policy. These include the U.S. NATO Committee, Committee for Liberation of Iraq, and U.S. Committee for a Free Lebanon. In late 2002 Michael Leeden and Morris Amitay spearheaded the creation of the Coalition for Democracy in Iran. Other members include Frank Gaffney, Jack Kemp, Bruce McColm, Joshua Muravhik, Danielle Pletka, Rob Sobhani, Raymond Tanter, and James Woolsey. (1)
CDI represents just one thrust in a phalanx of neoconservative initiatives and organizations that aim to set the U.S. foreign policy agenda for Iran. Other groups include the Middle East Forum, Project for the New American Century, Hudson Institute, Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, Committee on the Present Danger, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and especially the American Enterprise Institute, which serves as the flagship neocon think tank.
CDI states it was “formed to mobilize the efforts of groups and individuals across the United States, including Iranian-Americans, who support the aspirations of the Iranian people for democracy and respect for human rights in Iran. In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, there is an even greater urgency to focus the attention of the U.S. public opinion and the policy makers on the real agenda of the Iranian regime. If judged by actions rather than by words, the battle between the reformers and the hardliners appears only to be a myth, albeit one that has resulted in conflicting signals from Washington. On the vital issues of support for terrorism and for development of weapons of mass destruction, the Islamic Republic tolerates no dissention. Nor has the theocracy been able to deliver economic and political reforms for the people of Iran. Promoting democracy in Iran will build a more peaceful and prosperous Iran, advancing the common interests of both Americans and Iranians.”
Among CDI’s goals are: 1) highlight human rights abuses, which have continued or in some cases increased under the current ‘reformist’ president; 2) highlight the continued pre-eminent role of the Iranian government in global terrorism, the accumulation of weapons of mass destruction and the development of far-reaching and accurate delivery systems; 3) expose the efforts of the Iranian regime to undermine progress toward Middle East peace; and 4) draw attention to the flagrantly discriminative treatment of women in Iran.
According to CDI, “Engaging reformists tied only to the regime is counterproductive since it stifles the growth of more democratic forces inside Iran. Perpetuating the behavior of the current regime fundamentally undermines U.S. moral values and national security interests. Any positive U.S. gestures toward Iran should be directed towards the people of Iran and not its current oppressive regime.” (2)
Origins and Impact Several of the CDI principals were among the main presenters at an AEI forum titled “The Future of Iran.” Setting the tone of the forum, convener Meyrav Wurmser of Hudson Institute said: “Our fight against Iraq was only a battle in a long war. It would be ill-conceived to think we can deal with Iraq alone.We must move on, and faster.”
Morris Amitay, listed on the program as the vice-chair of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, made mention of his association with CDI. Also presenting were Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), whose sponsorship of congressional resolutions against Iran have been closely coordinated with CDI, American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and Middle East experts at AEI and other neocon policy centers; Michael Ledeen, who Amitay called the “godfather of JINSA, and who has served as the necon’s point-man on Iran; and S. Rob Sobhani, an Iranian-American who is president of Caspian Energy Consulting and like others associated with CDI is a close acquaintance of Reza Pahlavi, the son of the ousted Shah of Iran (installed by a U.S.-engineered coup in 1953).
Although CDI calls for greater democracy in Iran, the close association of neocons such as Ledeen and Sobhani with the shah’s son raise concern that this may form part of another U.S. plan to restore the monarchy in Iran. Writing in the International Herald Tribune, Cameron Kamran, an Iranian-American commentator, said: “The Coalition for Democracy in Iran has strong ties to the exiled Reza Pahlavi, the deceased shah’s son, and the Iran Democracy Act would largely fund dissident groups that advocate a restoration of the monarchy.” (3) (4) As it turned out, the initial request for $50 million to fund exile groups was removed from the 2003 congressional resolution, although its cosponsor Christopher Cox noted that funding for dissident groups could be included in future spending bills.
Michael Ledeen, who was one of the leading actors in the Iran-Contra affair during the second Reagan administration, is once again involved in backchannel operations involving U.S. government officials (Larry Franklin and Harold Rhode who work in the DOD’s Office of Policy under Douglas Feith), Iranian dissidents and arms merchants (notably Manhucher Ghoranifar, who helped arrange the U.S. arms transfers to Iran with Ledeen in 1986-87), and Italian and likely Israeli officials. These meetings have come under congressional scrutiny by the Select Senate Intelligence Committee, which has postponed further inquiry until after the November 2 elections.
To build support for their Middle East restructuring agenda, CDI and other neocon groups repeatedly highlight the repressed role of women in Islamic societies. An extreme interpretation by Rob Sobhani of this argument has drawn angry criticism from students at Georgetown University, where Sobhani is an adjunct professor. They charge that Sobhani has on at least two occasions (one being at the AEI forum in 2003) made the following statement: “There’s a young lady here in the United States who is in her mid thirties. She’s a Deputy Secretary of Education in the United States, an American Iranian. That same 30-something in Iran has to prostitute herself to make ends meet.” In a complaint to the university administration, the critics charge: “Mr. Sobhani’s irresponsible and inappropriate statement implies that Iranian women are prostitutes, however competent they might be. His allegation is both false and malicious. His manner of argument uses the degradation of the image of Iranians to that of a helpless, backward people as a tactic to gain support for his political agenda.” (5)
The Coalition for Democracy in Iran also includes members of other key neoconservative policy institutes and think tanks, including Raymond Tanter of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (an off-shoot of AIPAC); and Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy. In the 1990s Feith served as the board chairman of the Center for Security Policy, and James Woolsey is currently co-chairman of the advisory committee of this militarist institute whose slogan is “peace through strength.” Other neocon institutes represented in the coalition by more than one member include the American Enterprise Institute (Muravchick, Ledeen, Pletka), Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (Woolsey, Kemp, Gaffney), and Freedom House (Woolsey, McColm).
CDI and the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee were among the main policy groups that worked with House and Senate members to pass resolutions in 2003 and 2004 that express support for regime change in Iran, call for more restrictive international sanctions, and condemn Iran for its support of terrorism and human rights abuses. The congressional members taking the lead in both the House and the Senate were right-wing Republicans such as Christopher Cox, Jon Kyl, Rick Santorum, and Sam Brownback. But the Iran congressional initiatives also drew in Democrats as sponsors including Charles Schumer (NY) and Daniel Inouye (Hawaii), and Patrick Leahy (D-VT).
Just as the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 established the foundation for bipartisan congressional support for the 2002 invasion, the congressional initiatives regarding Iran have drawn in broad congressional support for resolutions that prepare the ground for a more aggressive U.S. posture, including possible support for expatriate groups and military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities and missile sites. Lauding the Brownback Senate amendment of July 2003 supporting democracy in Iran, AEI scholar Joshua Muravchik, speaking for CDI, said: “This amendment is an important milestone in the relationship between the U.S. Congress and the people of Iran. It sends a message to the Iranian people that the American people are aware of their struggle to free themselves, and that we want to do what we can to help. The days of waiting for the Iranian regime to reform itself are over.”
After the Iraq invasion, CDI principals and CDI itself increasingly began blaming Iran for the anti-U.S. insurgency in Iraq. CDI stated “It is clear that Iran’s mullahs will not tolerate an emerging democracy on their border. They have reportedly sent millions of dollars and numerous intelligence operatives into Iraq to create chaos and attack Coalition forces. Iran’s biggest export continues to be terrorism. If we are to succeed in Iraq, Iran must be reined in. We call upon the administration to react to this clear and present danger to U.S. interests by using all the means at its disposal to deter Iran’s activities in Iraq and its development of nuclear weapons.” (6)
In a December 19, 2003 analysis of Iran’s nuclear program posted on CDI’s web site, Michael Ledeen wrote:
“Alas, there is no sign that the West is willing to accept the truth about Iran, and therefore the imperative for action. Instead, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell pronounced himself ‘very happy’ with a feeble UN criticism of Iran’s nuclear program that bemoans Iran’s longstanding violation of its international agreements but does not shut down the program. At the moment the world is trusting that the Iranian rulers have been true to their word, and suspended their uranium enrichment.despite the explicit statement by Iranian National Security Council head Hassan Rohani during a news conference on Saturday, ‘Our uranium enrichment program has been suspended voluntarily, temporarily, to build trust,’ he said, adding that ‘the issue of ending uranium enrichment is not in question and never has been nor will be.’
“As for the inspections promised yesterday, we are all diligently repeating the same mistake we made with Saddam Hussein, and the Iranian rulers are copying his methods.Just as we gave the terror masters nearly a year and a half to scatter and hide the Iraqi weapons, and organize their Iraq strategy, so we are giving the Iranians precious time to pursue their weapons program and solidify internal terror.”
Amitay, the former director of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, shares Ledeen’s scorn for the State Department, where the prevailing mind-set is that there is “no tyrannical regime [that] can’t be made a friend by showing our good will.” CDI’s founders and associates form part of a tight circle of neocon groups closely allied with militarists in Israel. Ledeen, one of the colorful and shadowy figures in the neocon web, believes that the “appeasers” in Congress and the State Department stand in the way of regime change in Iran. A longtime critic of Colin Powell and other Republican realpolitikers, Ledeen charged that the appeasers in Washington “prefer to schmooze with the mullahs” than to promote “democratic revolution in Iran” supported by U.S. aid and military action. (7) (8)
In a November 2003 article for the National Review Online, Ledeen argued that the “appeasers” in Congress and the State Department “don’t want to know about Iran, because if they did, they would be driven to take actions that they do not want to take. They would have to support democratic revolution in Iran.” Ledeen concludes, “I guess some top official will have to die at the hands of (obviously) Iranian-supported terrorists before the Pentagon is permitted to work on the subject.” (9)
In the view of CDI, the democratic opposition that is attempting to gradually reduce the power of the Council of the Guardians is counterproductive. According to CDI, “[President] Khatami is part of the problem, not the solution. He merely puts a gentler face on a brutal and oppressive system in order to stall and deflect international criticism. While Khatami monopolizes the reform mantle, there has been, outside of press attention, a growing broad-based movement for change in Iranian society. This popular movement, which spans Iran’s rich and diverse society, is pro-democratic and yearning to live in freedom.”
Just who are these freedom fighters? Based on statements and the links of CDI principals, they appear to be a diverse and unlikely coalition of monarchists, arms dealers like Ghorbanifar, and the Mojahedeen Khalq Organization (MKO), a guerrilla group based in Iraq. (10)
Tom Barry is policy director of the Interhemispheric Resource Center, online at www.irc-online.org, and author of numerous books on international relations.
Sources (1) “Individuals Expressing Support for the CDI,” CDI
(2) CDI Goals
(3) Cameron Kamran, “Iranians Don’t Need American Kingmakers,” International Herald Tribune, June 6, 2003
(4) See “Washington Might Have Picked Iran’s Future King and Premier,” Iran Press Service, June 3, 2003,
excerpting from article by William Beeman in The Daily Star (Beirut), June 2, 2003.
(6) “CDI Says Iran Must Be Deterred If We Are to Succeed in Iraq,” CDI Media Release, April 13, 2004
(7) Transcript of “The Future of Iran,” American Enterprise Institute conference, May 6, 2003
(8) Michael Ledeen, “Unpunished Failure,” National Review Online, November 3, 2003
(9) “Michael Ledeen” Right Web Profile, December 2003
(10) Michael Ledeen, “Back the Freedom Fighters,” Washington Post, June 23, 2003;
Geneive Abdo, “Stay Out of Iran,” Washington Post, June 22, 2003.