Philanthropy and the Iran Nukes Deal: An "Acupuncture Moment"

Over the two decades since the fall of the Soviet Union, philanthropy has become less and less engaged in the great issues of war and peace. There's been no shortage of deadly conflicts or tense flashpointsfive million people have died in Congo alonebut philanthropic attention and dollars have been scarce. Syria is a case in point, with most funders shamefully unwilling to spare a dime to address one of the worst refugee crises in recent times. 

One exception to this trend has been Iran. For over a decade, some funders have been working behind the scenes to help resolve an increasingly dangerous standoff over that country's nuclear weapons program. With last week's agreement, the showdown seems finally to be headed for a peaceful resolution. 

The Rockefeller Brothers Fund has been at the forefront of these efforts, so I was keen to hear what its president, Stephen Heintz, had to say about the role that philanthropy has played in helping to ease tensions with Iran. 

Since 2002, RBF and other funders have supported so-called Track II diplomacy with Iran, which brought together senior former officials from both countries to engage in the kind of talks that couldn't happen through official channels. 

That process, says Heintz, was the "key philanthropic point of intervention." Fostering Track II was a case of "philanthropy supporting something that wouldn't otherwise have happened."

RBF had come to focus on Iran right after the 9/11 attacks, as it shifted its security work to promoting better ties with the Muslim world. It created something called the Iran Project in partnership with the United Nations Association, and its head, the retired U.S. diplomat William Luers. 

For years, through two presidential administrations, this effort pulled every lever it could to improve ties between the United States and Iran. Beyond fostering Track II diplomacy, Luers and others made the case for better official ties with Iran and a peaceful resolution of the nuclear standoff. They met with high-level U.S. policymakers, members of Congress from both parties, foreign leadersreally, whoever might listen. 

Beyond supporting the Iran Project with a steady stream of grants, RBF also backed the Iran work of the Ploughshares Fund, giving that group over $2 million in recent years. The fund's president, nuclear security expert Joe Cirincione, has been an indefatigable voice for a negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis, and Plougshare's grantmaking has supported a range of efforts to advance better ties with Iran. 

Besides RBF, a handful of other funders have kept an eye on Iran, most notably the Carnegie Corporation, which has made various grants over the years to policy groups working to resolve growing tensions. Most recently, for example, Carnegie gave over $300,000 to the Institute for Science and International Security for research and public education on Iran's nuclear activities.

The Hewlett Foundation has also been a player here. Last year, it gave $1 million to the Ploughshares Fund, and supported other groups favoring a deal with Iran, including the Arms Control Association. The Open Society Foundations has made grants on Iran, too. 

Overall, though, the sums given by foundations for Iran work have not been huge. "It hasn't really been a high-cost enterprise," says Heintz. Philanthropy's main contribution has been to be keep conversations going between Iranians and Americans that, over time, helped break down three decades of distrust between the two countries. 

"It's a wonderful acupuncture moment," says Heintz. "You were inserting small needles in the hope that it would cause a larger systemic change.” 

Obviously, the funding world can't claim credit for moving Iran and the world's top powers to a nuclear deal. But, says Heintz, “philanthropy has contributed in a meaningful way to the progress that’s been made on a very complex issue.”

The work isn't done, either. The next big test is defending the new nuclear agreement, which Heintz says means rallying public support, among other things. "People in Congress need to hear from their constitutents on this." Mobilizing that kind of grassroots effort will entail some serious cash, and Heintz is worried about where the money will come from. “There’s the need for more philanthropic support than is available." 

Meanwhile, of course, not all funders are excited about the nuclear deal with Iran. Plenty of money has lined up behind a more hawkish approach to that country's nuclear program. The American Enterprise Institute, heavily funded by conservative foundations and billionaires, has been a center of opposition to the deal. Last month, AEI scholar and former diplomat John Bolton argued for bombing Iran's nuclear facilities in a New York Times op-ed.

Another key group calling for tougher stance on Iran is the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. In recent years, it's received support from Paul Singer, Bernard Marcus, Sheldon Adelson, and other hawkish billionaires. Marcus alone, a Home Depot co-founder, gave nearly $11 million to FDD in one year.

Overall, it looks like more money has been spent—maybe a lot more—to push a hawkish stance on Iran than to find a negotiated solution. 

Whatever the exact figures, the crucial debate over peace with Iran is yet another example of a national conversation heavily orchestrated by funders on different sides of an issue—even as the typical American voter has been only marginally engaged.