From the beginning, Denehy’s influence at the Office of Iranian Affairs had stirred up resentment. Suzanne Maloney was on the policy-planning staff at the State Department for two years before she left last month to take up a post at the Brookings Institution. Her experience with the Iran portfolio demonstrates some of the difficulties inherent in democracy promotion. “In a small room it sounds terrific,” she told me. “You put some money on the table, we support freedom and it gets us some points at home.” Maloney, who was one of a handful of staff members at the State Department who spoke some Farsi and had actually been to Iran, said she found herself doing a lot of damage control during her policy-planning stint: “I was worried about the safety of those on the receiving end of the funds. But I also just wondered if this was feasible. I don’t see how a U.S. government that has been absent from Tehran for 30 years is capable of formulating a program that will have a positive effect.” She continued: “You had to wonder where this money was going to go and what’s going to happen when you don’t have the time to sit down and sift through the more questionable proposals. There’s just not enough oversight. Of the 100 or more preliminary proposals I saw under the first call, it was an enormous challenge to find anything viable. This may have been a very high profile, sexy project, but the likelihood of real impact was minimal.”
These people remain convinced that the best way to fix the damage created by a bull in a china shop is to introduce another bull into the shop.
While David Denehy acknowledges the difficulties of the administration’s democracy project, he still finds it critical to Iran’s democratic future. “Is now the time to re-evaluate our support to Iranian civil society?” he asks. “No. . . . Iranian civil society is now under siege, and we do not intend to turn our back on them in their desperate hour. Now is when they need us most.”