The “listening post” of Dubai

Dubai certainly is a “major Persian Gulf listening post for events in Iran”. The State Department called Dubai a “natural location” for a regional office due to its “proximity to Iran and access to an Iranian diaspora.”

That was in a State Department cable discussing the creation of the Office of Iranian Affairs (OIA) under the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. The OIA sought to “reach out to the Iranian people” and recruit more Iran experts and Persian-speaking officers into the Foreign Service, the Intelligence and Research Bureau (INR), and other branches of the State Department.

According to the cable, the Dubai office of the OIA would be modeled on the listening station in the Latvian capital of Riga to gather information on the Soviet Union during the 1920s.

The Iranian media has called the OIA the “regime-change office”. A State Department official based in Dubai denied that, saying “It is not some recruiting office and is not organizing the next revolution in Iran.”

As British writer Claud Cockburn famously said, “Never believe anything until it’s officially denied.”

The leaked State Department cable said that the Deputy Director of the Dubai station would be responsible for seeking “ways to use USG programs and funding to support Iranian political and civic organizations” and “to alert Washington on [the] need to issue statements on behalf of Iranian dissidents.”

And a State Department senior official told CNN that the purpose of the OIA was “to facilitate a change in Iranian policies and actions”.

The OIA was established in 2006 under funding from Congress allocated “to mount the biggest ever propaganda campaign against the Tehran government,” in the words of the Guardian. The Christian Science Monitor reported candidly that the “implicit goal” of the funding was “regime change from within”.

The Obama administration has continued support for Iranian dissident groups through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which has been soliciting applications for $20 million in grants to “promote democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in Iran” even while President Obama insists that the U.S. “is not at all interfering in Iran’s affairs”.

In a report on the funding, USA Today observed that “The State Department and USAID decline to name Iran-related grant recipients for security reasons.” In other words, the Obama administration doesn’t want the strings attached to Iranian dissident groups to be seen, a policy much more in line of critics of the Bush administration’s overt financing for the promotion of regime change.

It’s reasonable to assume that the UAE remains a central hub for U.S. efforts to further the U.S. policy of regime change, enshrined in law under the guise of the Iran Freedom Support Act, which authorizes the President “to provide financial and political assistance (including the award of grants) to foreign and domestic individuals, organizations, and entities working for the purpose of supporting and promoting democracy for Iran.”

In another example, the State Department subcontracted an initiative to develop a news website to provide information to Iranians through new media and to recruit Iranian journalists to contribute to the effort to “promote democracy”, the usual euphemism.

Obama’s “hands-off” approach has been looked upon much more favorably than Bush’s overt support for Iranian groups seeking regime change by the leadership of opposition groups themselves. Niknejad has herself been a critic of the Bush administration’s overt strategy for regime change.

Niknejad has written elsewhere that she was “the diplomatic affairs correspondent for a new English-language newspaper” in the capital of the UAE.

In what has been called a cold war between Iran and the United States, the UAE has emerged as a Vienna of sorts – a place where America’s Iran-watchers can mingle with thousands of Iranians. One hub for this is the expanded Iran Desk at the U.S. consulate in Dubai, the more cosmopolitan UAE city-state up the coast from the capital. If Iranians are suspicious of journalists, it’s partly because our reporting jobs can seem like the perfect cover to gather intelligence.

As they often are. She criticized the Congressional funding for the OIA, however, saying:

Things got worse the following year, when the Bush administration asked Congress for tens of millions of dollars to secretly fund NGOs and activists to destabilize the Iranian government. It stoked government paranoia and became an effective tool in the hands of officials who have used it to stifle dissent and spread fear.

The objection, in this widely shared criticism of the Bush administration, generally isn’t that the U.S. is engaging in such activities, just that by doing so in such a blatant and open manner it actually undermined the efforts of Iranian dissident and opposition groups struggling to accomplish a change of government in Iran. In other words, the U.S. shouldn’t be perceived as interfering in Iranian affairs. The implied corollary is that if the U.S. is going to interfere, it should do so in a manner that allows it a measure of plausible deniability – something the U.S. didn’t have under Bush.

Niknejad offered a little more information on the English-language newspaper she was writing for:

At that time, the circumstances in the UAE were stacked against me. The paper I was writing for had no name and was still months away from being published. As we started dry runs, I wrote stories on deadline for a paper with no name that no one outside the newsroom saw.

As noted in the press release announcing the launch of Tehran Bureau, the paper she was referring to is The National out of Abu Dhabi, owned by the Abu Dhabi Media Company (ADMC). According to the ADMC website:

Abu Dhabi Media Company is a vertically integrated media company created in 2007 as a public joint stock company from the assets of Emirates Media Incorporated…. The company is headquartered in Abu Dhabi with offices in Cairo, Dubai and Washington D.C.

Emirates Media Incorporated (EMI) was established in 1999 by the government of the UAE under the Ministry of Information and Culture. Financing for EMI includes funding includes grants. The Minister of Information Shaikh Abdullah bin Zayid described it by saying, “the Government has relinquished formal control over the country’s largest media group. Emirates Media Incorporated now enjoys editorial and administrative independence. It remains somewhat dependent, however, on government funding, while ownership is still officially vested in the government.”