The Wrong Man at Radio Free Iran

by Kenneth R. Timmerman

Washington Times (editorial page),

August 13, 1998

© Copyright 1998 by Kenneth R. Timmerman



The State Department has once again outflanked Congress, bygetting a foreign service officer with a deep intelligence backgroundappointed as the first director of Radio Free Iran, a "freedom radio"established by an act of Congress last year.

When Senator Alfonse D'Amato and Congressman Benjamin Gilmaninitially called for the creation of Radio Free Iran, their intentwas to create a Farsi-language broadcasting service modeled afterRadio Free Europe that would provide the type of news and opinionprograms the clerical regime in Iran currently forbids. Frequentlycalled "surrogate radios," because they are meant to provide a forumfor opposition views outlawed in the target country, freedom radiossponsored by the United States Congress and managed by Radio FreeEurope/Radio Liberty were a vital link to opposition movements beyondthe Iron Curtain in Europe during the dark days of the Cold War. Intoday's Iran, such a radio could help galvanize the growingopposition to the hard-line clerics currently ruling Iran.

But RFE/RL President Thomas A. Dine rejected candidates to run thenew radio who sought to help Iranians find new voices for theirdemocratic aspirations. Instead, he bowed to the wishes of the StateDepartment, appointing a long-time intelligence officer, Dr. StephenC. Fairbanks, to run the new Farsi-language service.

Fairbanks is an advocate of closer U.S.-Iran relations, andopposes U.S. actions that would anger the clerical regime orchallenge its legitimacy. This is precisely the wrong point of viewto have at the head of Radio Free Iran.

Fairbanks came to these views after serving in Iran for nearlyeight years in the 1960s and 1970s, first as a Peace Corps volunteer,and later, as a history teacher at the Tehran International School.After the Iranian Revolution, which like many leftist academicsFairbanks supported, he did a two year stint with the ForeignBroadcast Information Service, which is run by the CentralIntelligence Agency to monitor open source broadcasts from around theworld. He joined the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence andResearch in 1986, becoming the Senior analyst in charge ofinterpreting domestic Iranian politics for U.S. policy-makers.Fairbanks has consistently argued in background papers and briefingdocuments that today's Iran is far more democratic than the Arabstates in the Persian Gulf, and that the U.S. should therefore take amore benevolent approach toward the Islamic Republic. Until recently,U.S. policy-makers have rejected his advice.

Despite Fairbanks's intelligence background, and his status as aState Department employee, RFE/RL President Tom Dine insisted thatRadio Free Iran would be free of U.S. government influence.

"We do not and will not broadcast 'U.S. government propaganda,' assome have suggested," Dine said on July 30, when he announcedFairbanks's appointment. "Nor will this service be allowed to becomea mouthpiece for one or another part of the significant Iranianemigration. Instead, our news and our commentaries will seek toreflect the broadest range of freely expressed responsible opinionsof a free people."

Fairbanks will be responsible for hiring Iranian and Americanjournalists, and setting up programming aimed to "reaching out toelements in the elite and in the population who appear to be seekingto move their country forward," Dine said. "Our broadcasts canencourage these forces for change to move Iran away fromauthoritarianism and isolationism toward democracy and integrationwith the broader international community."

But Fairbanks has no broadcasting experience, and as anintelligence analyst has gone out of his way to mitigate negativeinformation on the Islamic Republic's overseas terrorist activitiesand its human rights violations at home.

At a conference sponsored by the Nixon Center for Peace andFreedom on Oct. 22, 1996, Fairbanks downplayed reports on Iraniangovernment involvement in the assassination of dissidents overseas."I seem to remember that during the Shah's time similar things weregoing on," Fairbanks opined, "so I don't really see where the currentregime has innovated in this regard."

While Fairbanks paints himself as a scholar, and has justcompleted a year-long sabbatical at the Woodrow Wilson InternationalCenter in Washington, DC, his State Department affiliation will besharply criticized in Tehran - and more importantly, on Capitol Hill.Instead of Radio Free Iran, the new venture will be seen as the Voiceof the U.S. Department of State.

Fairbanks won out over the other top candidate, the former head ofVoice of America's Farsi Service, Bill Royce, because he had thebacking of Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering. RFE/RL PresidentTom Dine met several times with Pickering to discuss possiblecandidates, but Dine insisted that he was not influenced by the StateDepartment in making his choice. "This radio will not be a StateDepartment lap dog," Dine insisted.

But sources say Dine and others at RFE/RL were well aware thatSecretary of State Madeleine Albright was "dead against" the creationof a freedom radio for Iran, and tried repeatedly to prevent Congressfrom appropriating funds for it. When that failed, State Departmentofficers and Congressional insiders who tracked the radio say,Pickering intervened to ensure that a Director was named who wouldtake his cue from Foggy Bottom, not from human rights activists ormembers of Congress who are concerned with Iran's development ofballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.

"Steve Fairbanks is a loyal administration soldier who happens toknow Iran fairly well," said one source. "But his attitude toward theregime is soft. Clearly the administration did not want this radioto be set up and now hopes to make it as anodyne as possible."

Dine has said he intends to work closely with members of Congresswho created the legislation authorizing Radio Free Iran, but a topaide to Senator Alfonse D'Amato says they were kept totally in thedark. When asked whether he knew that Fairbanks had been appointed,the aide said "that's news to me. I didn't even know Fairbanks wasunder consideration."

Members of Congress will be closely monitoring the programmingFairbanks selects over the next few months, and could be tempted to"micro-manage" the radio if they feel it has become a tool ofU.S.-Iranian rapprochement, instead of a tool for promoting democracyand human rights in Iran, as Congress intended.

One touchstone will be the treatment Fairbanks gives to storiesthat have angered the Tehran regime in the past, such as its supportfor international terrorism, its human rights abuses, or thetreatment of Iranian women, and whether he gives air time to Iranianopposition leaders, especially to opposition clerics. Many observersof Iranian politics believe the real Achilles heel of the clericalregime is what many Iranians perceive as its betrayal of Islam. Theregime has consistently stiffled opposition clerics, placing themunder house arrest and even establishing a Special Court for theClergy to ensure they can attract no mass following. Radio Free Iranshould provide a forum for such clerics to reach a domestic audienceinside Iran.

Radio Free Iran was created to become the champion of the growingpro-democracy movement inside Iran, not the tool of U.S.-Iranrapprochement, or of U.S. business interests. Congress and humanrights advocates will judge Fairbanks - and his boss, Tom Dine - onhow well the new radio meets the high standards established by RadioFree Europe in the past, when it held high the beacon of freedom in adark world of tyranny and repression.

Kenneth Timmerman is the Executive Director of the Foundationfor Democracy in Iran (FDI). FDI is a private, non-profit corporationregistered in the State of Maryland. FDI materials, including the FDINews Update, are available free-of-charge via the Internet at