WASHINGTON, Feb. 23 (UPI) -- When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week asked Congress for an extra $75 million to organize and support non-violent opposition in Iran it was as though someone had resurrected the old files on the Reagan administration's successful campaign to undermine the Polish regime, and the even earlier files on the U.S. role in the Hungarian uprising which is being remembered this year on its 50th anniversary.
The latter tragic story is quickly told. In Oct. 1956 the Hungarians rose up against the Soviet occupying forces and fought them street by street for nearly three months but were ultimately -- and inevitably -- crushed by the sheer force of the Red Army. Throughout, the United States encouraged the rebels through broadcasts by Radio Free Europe and Voice of America, and encouraged the resistance with vague promises of help, but American help never came.
A quarter of a century later the story of U.S. clandestine help for the Polish independent trade union Solidarnosc (Solidarity) was another story with a different ending; and when Rice and State Department officials explained what was planned "to support the aspirations of the Iranian people for freedom and democracy in their country," as Rice put it, observers with long memories has a sense of having seen it all before.
In 1980 an unknown electrician named Lech Walesa employed in the Gdansk shipyard on Poland's Baltic coast started the union Solidarity. Shortly afterwards, President Ronald Reagan signed an executive order setting up a program of covert support for the union. Analysts agree that American help was crucial for the movement's survival when the regime began to crack down on it, and its members had to go underground. Working secretly with the U.S. Catholic Church and American labor unions, the Central Intelligence Agency supplied Solidarity with money, equipment for clandestine broadcasting, photo-copying machines, small printing presses, and much else to keep the movement alive while many of its key figures were in and out of jail. The CIA -- indeed, the United States -- remained very much in the background, relying on foreign "cutouts" -- front organizations, including Swedish labor unions -- to channel the aid to the Poles. At the same time, Radio Free Europe, which had always had a strong Polish language section, provided further support by broadcasting programs critical of the regime of Gen.Wojciech Jaruzelski. By 1989, Solidarity had forced the regime into agreeing to hold Poland's first free elections, and the communist regime itself collapsed shortly afterwards.
The other key factor in the success of Solidarity -- some historians would say in the demise of the Soviet empire as a whole -- was the impact of the election of a Polish-born Pope John Paul II who, on visits to his native land openly supported the labor moment. The Reagan administration worked closely with the pope, and a senior administration official, Gen. Vernon Walters, traveled regularly to Rome to brief senior Vatican prelates -- and occasionally Pope John Paul himself -- on what the United States was doing. As part of his briefing, Walters would also show them satellite photos of Russian troops movements on Poland's borders.
Following Rice's appearance on Capitol Hill, senior administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, outlined what one of them called "pieces of the package to promote democracy (in Iran) and to expand our ability to get the message out to the Iranian people." One part of the strategy is to work with American and international non-government organizations and universities "to help labor unionists organize" and "to put together networks of dissidents and human rights activists." But the main expenditure was earmarked to beef up radio and television broadcasts in Farsi, the Iranian language, to the Iranian people through Radio Free Europe, Voice of America, Radio Liberty, and other organizations. "Radio is critical," one official said "You are seeing a real explosion inside Iran of a whole range of technologies, both in terms of the basic satellite dishes for television, as well as . . .satellite radio broadcasts."
To promote civil society development the United States will help Iranian political reform groups to organize themselves, which given the circumstances can only happen covertly. "Extremely brave people" were risking their lives to speak out against the regime, the same official said. The United States "will help to give them the tools to organize themselves and to form new groups that are not infiltrated by the government, that we can work with," he added. The internet will be harnessed for instant messaging. If broadcasts perhaps appeal more to the heart, other aspects of the strategy are geared to appeal to the mind. College scholarships and exchanges for students and academics are to be offered, "to expand our reach to Iranian students and to the Iranian young people," the official said.
Observers said the program lacks two important elements that had proved so effective in helping Solidarity. One is that in this instance there is no Pope John Paul -- no major figure outside the country to provide moral strength and encouragement. The son and heir of the late Shah, Ali Reza, lives in the United States. But if State Department planners envision a role in their new Iran democracy drive for the huge Iranian exile community they have not mentioned it -- possibly having learned a lesson or two from the over-reliance on exiles in the Iraq disaster. Secondly, some question the wisdom of laying out the plan in public which must alert the ruling Iranian ayatollahs to tighten their internal controls. The key to the Reagan administration's regime change campaign in Poland was its secrecy, thereby avoiding the charge that Solidarity was an instrument of U.S. subversion. Even today, some Solidarity leaders are still in denial about how much or how little CIA help counted in the movement's ultimate victory.
The Bush administration's less subtle approach to regime change, and its penchant for self-advertisement, will certainly not help some of the trickier aspects of Rice's $75 million drive. But one official did hint that the administration would be more secretive about its operations. ""We don't want to hurt the people we're trying to help," he said. "We understand very well that people that we begin to work with will become targets and so, I think that you will see us not being as public as we might otherwise be about specific individuals we're working with."