A Neo-Conservative International Targets Iran

Before the week is out, it’s worth noting the “Democracy & Security” conference in Prague last Monday and Tuesday where Bush, on his way to the G-8 Summit in Heiligendamm, confirmed once more — just in case his tightening embrace over the past year of Sunni-led authoritarian regimes around the Middle East had provoked any doubts — his commitment to spreading freedom and defeating tyranny throughout the world, particularly in Iran, Cuba, and Sudan. Held under the auspices of the Czech Foreign Ministry and Prague’s municipal government, the meeting was organized by the Prague Security Studies Institute (PSSI), the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the Likudist Shalem Center in Jerusalem, and Spain’s Foundation for Social Studies and Analysis (FAES) headed by former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar.

The conference’s official website can be found here and is certainly worth a visit as are the program, and the list of participants, several of whom, notably Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) president Clifford May, European Foundation for Democracy (EFD) executive director Roberta Bonazzi, The Wall Street Journal’s foreign affairs columnist, Bret Stephens, and PSSI’s Jiri Schneider, must have sported suntans earned at the previous week’s off-the-record Iran conference that FDD convened in the Bahamas and about which I wrote in two previous posts here and here.

Heralded last month by the Weekly Standard (whose editor, Bill Kristol, serves on the Shalem Foundation’s board of directors) in an article entitled “Dissidents Unite!,” the conference was convened by former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, Aznar, and the former president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel.

Sharansky, chairman of both the Adelson Institute and of One Jerusalem, a group created to oppose any move under the Oslo peace process to to recognise Palestinian sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem, is a former Soviet refusenik whose 2004 book, ‘The Case for Democracy,’ helped inspire Bush’s ringing 2005 Inaugural Address (even if Sharansky’s own democratic credentials ring a little hollow. Aznar and Havel are co-chairs of the “international” section of the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD), which was launched by FDD in June 2004 and whose website is www.fightingterror.org. Sen. Joe Lieberman, an honorary co-chairman of CPD, keynoted the opening session. In other words, the conference constituted a kind of “Neo-Conservative International” designed to rally support for “dissidents,” primarily from the Islamic world, and give them hope that “regime change” in their countries is possible much as it was in the former Soviet bloc almost 20 years ago.

Indeed, besides FDD’s May, Sharansky and Lieberman, a familiar clutch of U.S. hawks took part in the proceedings, including an all-star contingent from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) consisting of Richard Perle, Michael Rubin, Michael Novak, Joshua Muravchik, and Reuel Marc Gerecht; Herb London, John O’Sullivan, and Anne Bayefsky from the Hudson Institute; Bruce Jackson a former director of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC); Tod Lindberg of the Hoover Institution; the FDD’s Walid Phares; and Devon Cross, a member of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board (DPB), director of the London-based Policy Forum on International Security, and sister of Frank Gaffney, the president of the ultra-hawkish Center for Security Policy (CSP). A close Gaffney associate and co-founder of PSSI, Roger W. Robinson, Jr., who is also a leading figure in the Iran divestment campaign here, was also in attendance, along with some major funders of pro-Likud, neo-conservative groups, such as Nina Rosenwald, Ronald Lauder, as well as Miriam and Sheldon Adelson.

In addition to Bush himself, other U.S. government officials who participated in the conference included Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes; the new president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and AEI alumnus, Jeffrey Gedmin; Harold Rhode, a Pentagon official and close associate of AEI’s Michael Ledeen who was involved in back-channel talks with Manucher Ghorbanifar about encouraging “regime change” in Iran in 2003; and Joe Wood, identified in the participants’ list as the deputy assistant to the Vice President for National Security Affairs in the Office of the Vice President at the White House.

The assumptions underlying the Conference were set out in a background paper by Marc Plattner, the editor of the ‘Journal of Democracy’, which is published by the quasi-governmental National Endowment for Democracy (NED). “Increasingly, the world is divided between liberal democracies (or regimes that are striving or pretending to be liberal democracies) and regimes that are tyrannical or are tending in that direction,” he wrote. And it is states in the latter category that are the source of the growing security threats that confront us. Though these regimes differ greatly in many respects, their leaders seem to be drawn together more and more by their common fear and hatred of liberal democracy – think of the unholy trinity of Ahmadinejad, Chavez, and Lukashenka. It is the tyrannical regimes that support terrorism and threaten not merely to acquire but to use nuclear weapons.”

That analysis not only entirely dismisses the threat posed by Al Qaeda and other violent Islamist groups, but it also, of course, makes Iran Public Enemy Number One. Indeed, Bayefsky, writing in the National Review Online on Friday, wrote (): “(T)here was an elephant in the room that dominated conversations in the coffee breaks and the halls – Iran, its genocidal ambitions, its mad dash towards acquiring nuclear weapons, and its familial relationships with terrorists prepared to use them while screaming the suicide bombers closing argument of choice: Allah Akbar.”

Bayefsky, in fact, was quite frustrated with Bush’s speech and its high-sounding, but too inspecific, injunction that “[F]ree nations must do what it takes to prevail.”

“Which begged the very unpresidential question,” she asked, “so what the hell are we waiting for?” “…Mr. President, the truth is that one of the most evil regimes in the world as we know it is on the verge of acquiring the most powerful weapon in the world as we know it. And the future is in your hands. The clear message from Prague was that you have friends around the world, even if not in your administration. You have the power to protect our nation and freedom for all people everywhere. You lead your nation now. And without exercising that leadership, with no further pretense that the U.N. has the authority to deny the necessities of America’s national defense, the triumph of hate over hope will be laid at your door.”

While a number of the attendees, Muravchik most explicitly, are on record as urging an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities before Bush leaves office if, as they are certain, the diplomatic track doesn’t bear fruit, Sharansky clearly favors, at least for now, an effort to achieve regime change via the East European model. He told the Standard that Iran represents “almost a classic example of how in one generation a country of true believers could turn into a country of doublethinkers” and that opposition to the mullahs is “so massive that it could be compared with Solidarity in Poland.”

That perhaps explains another interesting facet of the conference: All of the one-time dissidents in attendance who, like Havel, eventually took power as a result of regime change in their countries came from countries in the former Soviet bloc; not a single one hailed from Latin America or Africa where a number of countries have made relatively successful – if incomplete — transitions from dictatorships to democracies over the past 20 years. That oversight is particularly remarkable given the co-sponsorship of Aznar, who, one would think, would be particularly conscious of Latin America’s political evolution and its possible relevance to the Islamic world. For whatever reason, neo-conservatives still appear to believe – despite the strong and accumulating evidence to the contrary – that Eastern Europe is the appropriate model for transforming the Middle East despite the latter’s legacy of European colonialism which it shares far more with Latin America and Africa.

A number of genuine dissidents who have suffered for their advocacy did show up, including Mudawi Ibrahim Adam from Sudan; Mamoun Homsy, a former parliamentarian from Syria; Bassem Eid, the founder and director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group); Saad Eddin Ibrahim from Egypt; Cheol Hwan Kang, a former political prisoner from North Korea; and Mohsen Sazegara who was imprisoned for leading a drive to reform the Iranian constitution and subsequently released into exile. He is currently based at Harvard Law School. That some of these have been championed by neo-conservatives does not detract from the importance of their human-rights work.

Other participating dissidents may not have suffered for their beliefs quite as much. Besides Sazegara, who was profiled by Laura Rozen and Jeet Heer in The American Prospect two years ago, the two Iranian representatives were Reza Pahlavi, the Shah’s son and heir, and Amir Abbas Fakhravar, a Perle favourite whose bona fides was questioned in an important article, also by Laura, in Mother Jones last year. On the Syrian front, Homsy was joined by Farid Ghadry, the Washington-based businessman who emigrated from Syria with his family to Lebanon at the age of eight. Long promoted by neo-conservatives, Ghadry is the founder-president of the Reform Party of Syria, and a member of both CPD and the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.