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The Office of Iranian Affairs (OIA) was created in early 2006 within the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Near East Affairs, apparently as part of an effort to channel funds to groups that could aid opposition factions within Iran. The OIA is often confused with and/or compared to the controversial Office of Special Plans (OSP), the neoconservative-led outfit in the Pentagon that was accused of supplying warped intelligence to the George W. Bush administration during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. But the OIA seems to have little resemblance to its Pentagon relative: it does not appear to have an intelligence interpretation role; it serves the State Department; and it is not under the control of core neoconservatives. However, as news about the relatively obscure OIA has gradually surfaced, it seems clear that it and the OSP share an important characteristic—both were meant to play a role in fomenting regime change in the Middle East.
The first hard news about the OIA emerged on March 3, 2006, when Adam Ereli, deputy spokesman for the State Department, responded to a reporter’s question about the office. After confirming the creation of the office, Ereli said: "We have also created a number of new positions in the field—for Foreign Service officers to work on Iran-related issues. This comes in the context of the secretary’s broader initiative regarding transformational diplomacy and is part of our overall effort to realign resources with policy priorities in recognition of a changing world, a world that is far different from the one for which we have been geared to deal for the last generation, really."
Regarding the "new positions in the field," Ereli said: "There will be a certain number here in Washington, in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, where the Office of Iranian Affairs is located, as well as the Department of Human Rights and Labor, and to administer—and a lot of these will be—some of these positions will be involved with administering the $75 million that we hope to get from Congress to promote empowerment and democracy and flow of information and citizen exchanges in Iran, and others will be in the field to support these programs, as well as to get a better idea and a better handle of what’s going on in Iran."
Asked whether the new department will "bring in Iranian exiles," Ereli said: "The way I would look at this office, frankly, is—and this deployment is administering programs and conducting activities that are consistent with programs and activities that we do around the world. In other words, you’ve got an office that deals with, let’s say, Russia. We’ve got programs in Russia, we’ve got money we spend with Russia, we’ve got exchanges with Russia, so you need people to run those programs, interact with NGOs and others. We’re going to be doing the same thing with Iran. If you look at the rationale and the description of how we are going to spend the $75 million, that entails a certain amount of expertise, of labor, of engagement. And the other point to make here is that—look out over the long term. Iran is and is going to continue to be a very important country. We need to develop a cadre of Foreign Service officers who speak Farsi, who understand the region—not just Iran, but the region where Iran has influence and has reach—and understands Iran. So that’s the logic of putting people out in the field, to use the language, to develop the on-the-ground expertise so that 10, 15, 20 years from now, we’ve got—just like we have Arab experts, just like we have—we used to have Soviet experts, we’ve got a cadre of Iran experts."
An unclassified State Department cable, dated March 6, 2006 and posted on the blog of the American Progress Action Fund, ThinkProgress.org, said that the office is part of an "initiative [that] will enhance our capacity to respond to the full spectrum of threats Iran poses, to reach out to the Iranian people to support their desire for freedom and democracy, over the long-term, reestablish a cadre of Iran experts within the Foreign Service. Additionally, these new positions are part of the Global Diplomatic Repositioning Strategy to support transformational diplomacy and the President’s Freedom Agenda."
Despite the scant details about the office’s activities, many bloggers and pundits were quick to assert that the OIA was yet another manifestation of the neocon effort to hijack U.S. foreign policy. Robert Dreyfuss of TomPaine.com wrote: "The pieces are falling into place for Operation Regime Change II, this time in Iran. You’d think, given how badly it went the first time, and how utterly unpredictable a showdown with Iran would be, that the Bush administration would have at least changed its m.o.—but no." He added, "In the past few weeks, we’ve seen the Bush administration create a brand new Office of Iranian Affairs at the State Department, which looks suspiciously like a step toward creating the Iraq War planning office at the Pentagon called the Office of Special Plans" (Robert Dreyfuss, "Déjà Vu All Over Iran," TomPaine.com, March 14, 2006).
In a May 19, 2006, article for the Los Angeles Times, Laura Rozen described the new office in the context of the OSP, juxtaposing news about the State Department office with a discussion of a new Pentagon "Iranian directorate," which she reported "has been set up inside its policy shop, which previously housed the Office of Special Plans. The controversial intelligence analysis unit, established before the Iraq War, championed some of the claims of Ahmed Chalabi. A number of assertions made by the former Iraqi exile and onetime Pentagon favorite were later discredited." Among those staffing the new Pentagon directorate, according to Rozen, were Abram Shulsky , a purported Straussian devotee closely tied to a number of neoconservative figures, and John Triglio, an analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency (Laura Rozen, "U.S. Moves to Weaken Iran," LA Times, May 19, 2006).
According to Rozen: "The State Department’s new Iranian Affairs office is headed by David Denehy, a longtime democracy specialist at the International Republican Institute [which serves as an arm of the government-funded National Endowment for Democracy], who will work under Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Elizabeth Cheney, daughter of the vice president." Patricia Kushlis, a blogger and former Foreign Service officer, contested part of Rozen’s account, pointing out that "[Elizabeth] Cheney was principal deputy assistant secretary, not assistant secretary for the Near East, and Denehy’s working for her is highly unlikely since, according to an AP report on May 19, , she will soon leave State to produce her fifth child." Cheney stepped down from her State post in early 2006.
Regarding Denehy’s background, Kushlis wrote: "I searched Google for information on David Denehy himself—but turned up almost nothing—that is next to nothing before he appeared in a State Department telephone book as working for the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) in January 2001. It is my understanding that he joined INR as an analyst on the Middle East including Iran and Iraq where he was a presidential (management) intern after receiving an MA in international affairs from Columbia. In 2003, Denehy went to Iraq to work for Jerry Bremer as the deputy director of the CPA’s [Coalition Provisional Authority] Office of Demo
cracy and Governance. He then returned to INR as an analyst on Middle East projects until December 2004, when he joined the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. He soon became an acting deputy assistant secretary. Denehy is now listed as director of the Office of Strategic and External Affairs (whatever that means) in that same bureau with a seventh floor office but what looks like—on paper—a tiny staff."
Negar Azimi supplied many more details about the office and about Denehy in the June 24, 2007 New York Times Magazine , writing that Denehy was "a veteran of democracy promotion programs in Eastern Europe and Central Asia with the International Republican Institute and a close associate of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz during the Iraq War, [where] he served in Baghdad from June to October 2003." Regarding his work, Denehy told Azimi: "I’ve focused my career on promoting personal liberty because I want my kids to grow up in a better world than their parents did. … I don’t want them to be concerned about the global war on terror. I want them to be able to travel throughout the Middle East without concerns."
According to Azimi, creation of the OIA was tied to a $75 million funding request to promote freedom and human rights in Iran that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made in February 2006. According to the International Herald Tribune (July 25, 2007), Congress agreed to give $66 million of the request over a two-year period; about half of it was to be given to Voice of America’s Persian-language radio and television broadcasts. From January to June 2006, some $16 million, according to the Tribune, was spent on promoting democracy.
According to Azimi’s New York Times article, much of this money was to "support the efforts of civil-society groups—media, legal, and human rights nongovernmental organizations—both outside and inside Iran." However, Azimi claims that many advocates for change in and outside Iran won’t accept the funds because of their connection to the U.S. government:
"Many Iranians have grown paranoid about anything vaguely linked to the West. … Kayhan, the semiofficial newspaper, editorializes almost daily about an elaborate network conspiring to topple the regime. Called ‘khaneh ankaboot,’ or ‘the spider nest,’ the network is reportedly bankrolled by the $75 million and includes everyone from George Soros to George W. Bush to Francis Fukuyama to dissident Iranians of all shades. In this vision, the network gets its ‘orders’ from the Americans. …
"If the spider’s nest had a headquarters, it might well be the Office of Iranian Affairs, which sits on the second floor of the State Department, its pencil-thin plastic sign a bit more shiny and newer than those glued to adjoining doors. Begun in March 2006 with the patronage and blessing of the secretary of state, the office was charged with outlining, in close consultation with Denehy, how to spend the democracy fund" (New York Times, June 24, 2007).
Suzanne Maloney, a former member of State’s policy planning staff voiced similar concerns, telling the International Herald Tribune (July 25, 2007) that groups in Iran are not equipped to spend the money on offer and that in any case many wouldn’t accept the money out of fear. She said that in making the request, the State Department failed to give any thought to "the broader fallout" such funding might have.
One group that has apparently accepted money from this initiative is Freedom House, a neoconservative-aligned human rights group that has frequently been criticized for bending its vision of democracy and human rights to fit the strategic objectives of the United States. According to the Financial Times (June 16, 2006), the Iran-Syria Operations Group (ISOG), which has been connected to the OIA, Denehy, and Elizabeth Cheney in various press reports (see, for example, the Financial Times, April 21, 2006), has been an eager donor to groups active in Iran. One source told the FT (June 16, 2006) that the ISOG was "trying to push money out the door" to groups working for change in both Syria and Iran. "Some NGOs, for example Freedom House, have quietly accepted the funding. Others have refused, saying they want to remain transparent and keep their distance from the United States."
According to the FT‘s Guy Dinmore, the funding priorities of the new State Department offices were creating a rift between democracy promoting groups. Dinmore reported that one Freedom House board member who asked to remain anonymous said the problem "was most evident in a rift between the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a grant-making NGO funded by Congress and set up in the Cold War, and Freedom House, which is taking a much more aggressive stance in supporting peaceful movements and activities directed at regime change. Keeping a distance from the U.S. government was ‘absolutely critical,’ Carl Gershman, head of NED, told a Senate hearing. ‘Our credibility is at stake.’"