The Coalition for Democracy in Iran (CDI) was an advocacy outfit supported by a number of neoconservative writers and based in the office of Morris Amitay, the one-time director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). CDI worked closely with AIPAC to encourage Congress to pass resolutions condemning Iran. Established in 2002 and operational through early 2005, CDI announced on its (now-defunct) website that as of May 2005, "There will no longer be new postings on this website indefinitely."
CDI's statement of purpose read: "The Coalition for Democracy in Iran (CDI) has been formed to mobilize the efforts of groups and individuals across the United States, including Iranian-Americans, who support the aspirations of the Iranian people for democracy and respect for human rights in Iran. In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, there is an even greater urgency to focus the attention of the U.S. public opinion and the policy makers on the real agenda of the Iranian regime. ... On the vital issues of support for terrorism and development for weapons of mass destruction, the Islamic Republic tolerates no dissention. Nor has the theocracy been able to deliver economic and political reforms for the people of Iran. Promoting democracy in Iran will build a more peaceful and prosperous Iran, advancing the common interests of both Americans and Iranians."
When it was formed in late 2002, CDI relied on the support of a number of advocates of hardline U.S. policies in the "war on terror," including neoconservatives from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) like Michael Ledeen, Joshua Muravchik, and Danielle Pletka. Other supporters included Frank Gaffney, Jack Kemp, Bruce McColm, Rob Sobhani, Raymond Tanter, and James Woolsey.
Like its many partners in the neoconservative advocacy community—including the U.S. Committee for a Free Lebanon, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the Project for the New American Century, and the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq—CDI was founded on the notion that engagement and dialogue with leaders in "terrorist" states is counterproductive. Its website stated: "Engaging reformists tied only to the regime is counterproductive since it stifles the growth of more democratic forces inside Iran. Perpetuating the behavior of the current regime fundamentally undermines U.S. moral values and national security interests. Any positive U.S. gestures toward Iran should be directed toward the people of Iran and not its current oppressive regime."
The group's founding goals included: reporting on human rights abuses in Iran; highlighting Iran's ties to global terrorism and its efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction; exposing the efforts of the Iranian regime to undermine progress toward Middle East peace; and drawing attention to the flagrantly discriminative treatment of women in Iran.
Several of the CDI principals were among the main presenters at a May 2003 AEI forum titled "The Future of Iran: Mullahcracy, Democracy, and the War on Terror," which was cosponsored by the Hudson Institute and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Setting the tone of the forum, moderator Meyrav Wurmser of Hudson said: "Our fight against Iraq was only a battle in a long war. It would be ill conceived to think we can deal with Iraq alone. ... We must move on, and faster." Panelist Morris Amitay, listed on the program as the vice chair of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, made mention of his association with CDI, adding that, "The only way that there can be any positive action on Iran is if we try to keep the issue on the front burner and particularly, before, as was pointed out, they do get their nukes."
Former Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS), whose sponsorship of congressional resolutions against Iran was closely coordinated with CDI, AIPAC, and Middle East experts at AEI and other neocon policy centers, also spoke at the event, and Michael Ledeen, who called Amitay the "godfather of AIPAC," was another moderator. Other panelists included Reuel Marc Gerecht, an AEI scholar, and Sobhani, an Iranian-American who is president of Caspian Energy Consulting and a supporter of Reza Pahlavi, the son of the ousted shah of Iran.
Although CDI called for greater democracy in Iran, the close association of figures such as Ledeen and Sobhani with Pahlavi raised concerns that CDI was part of a U.S. plan to restore the monarchy in Iran. Writing in the International Herald Tribune, Cameron Kamran, an Iranian-American commentator, said, "The Coalition for Democracy in Iran has strong ties to the exiled Reza Pahlavi, the deceased shah's son, and the Iran Democracy Act would largely fund dissident groups that advocate a restoration of the monarchy."
To build support for their Middle East-restructuring agenda, CDI and other neoconservative groups repeatedly highlighted the repressed role of women in Islamic societies. CDI's Sobhani argued at the May 2003 AEI forum: "There's a young lady here in the United States who is in her mid-thirties. She's a deputy secretary of education in the United States, an American Iranian. That same 30-something in Iran has to prostitute herself to make ends meet." His comments drew complaints to the administration of Georgetown University, where Sobhani was at the time a professor. In a letter to the university provost, Iranian-American students wrote: "Mr. Sobhani's irresponsible and inappropriate statement implies that Iranian women are prostitutes, however competent they might be. His allegation is both false and malicious. ... His manner of argument uses the degradation of the image of Iranians to that of a helpless, backward people as a tactic to gain support for his political agenda."
CDI and AIPAC were among the main policy groups that worked with House and Senate members to pass resolutions in 2003 and 2004 that expressed support for regime change in Iran, called for more restrictive international sanctions, and condemned Iran for its alleged support of terrorism. Congressional members taking the lead were right-wing Republicans such as Rep. Christopher Cox (R-CA), Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), and Brownback. But the Iran congressional initiatives also drew Democrats as sponsors, including Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI).
After the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, CDI and its supporters began increasingly to blame Iran for the anti-U.S. insurgency in Iraq. CDI stated: "It is clear that Iran's mullahs will not tolerate an emerging democracy on their border. They have reportedly sent millions of dollars and numerous intelligence operatives into Iraq to create chaos and attack Coalition forces. Iran's biggest export continues to be terrorism. If we are to succeed in Iraq, Iran must be reined in. We call upon the administration to react to this clear and present danger to U.S. interests by using all the means at its disposal to deter Iran's activities in Iraq and its development of nuclear weapons."