Times Get Tougher For NGOs in Iran
By Bill Samii
Facing official restrictions on
meaningful participation in political affairs, some Iranians have come to view
nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) as a way to get involved and help
themselves and others. But hard-liners associated with Iran's president have
expressed misgivings about NGOs.
WASHINGTON, August 11, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The most recent
expression of official distrust was the government's ban in early August of a
human rights group led by Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi.
thousands of such entities currently operating in Iran, with estimates ranging
from 8,000 to 20,000. They include charities, as well as organizations that deal
with youth affairs, environmental issues, women, human rights, and vulnerable
The former administration of reformist President Mohammad
Khatami (1997-2005) encouraged the creation of NGOs and earmarked funding for
their establishment. The main goal of the reformists was political development.
And the development of civil-society entities like NGOs was
seen as an essential part of this process. Even as his second term in office
ended, Khatami revealed his continuing confidence in NGOs by registering a group
that would focus on the "dialogue among civilizations," the motto of his
Not everyone shares this enthusiasm for NGOs.
Some Iranian conservatives regard them as suspicious
Western-style institutions that are inappropriate for the Islamic republic. The
hard-line Islamic Coalition Party's Hamid Reza Taraqi called it "impossible to
deal with the people's demands by setting up NGOs," "Etemad" reported on July
28, 2005. Taraqi offered that such groups "are based on the Western way of
thinking and models that are not in tune with [Iran's] cultural structure and
Taraqi also criticized the Khatami administration for
allocating funds for NGOs. He predicted that President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's
administration would adopt a different approach.
"Instead of promoting such formations and Western models,"
Taraqi said, Ahmadinejad "will try to make use of the mosque and religious
teams...in order to pursue public demands." He suggested that such institutions
"are more commensurate with the indigenous culture."
appeared prescient when the Ahmadinejad administration submitted its budget to
the parliament. The amount of money allocated to religious institutions,
seminaries, and outreach entities was increased. In some cases, the budget
increases surpassed 100 percent, "Etemad" reported on February 15.
The initial impression might be that this change in emphasis reflects the
conservative tendencies of the president and his associates, and some
legislators objected to these developments.
It is noteworthy that
such a shift -- and an accompanying reallocation of resources -- is not peculiar
to the Ahmadinejad administration. Other Iranian executives have done the same,
and these moves could merely reflect Ahmadinejad's effort to distance himself
from the policies of his predecessor. Moreover, shifting funds to mosque-based
organizations could be a way of working with those civil-society institutions
that are most familiar to the president's political base among the country's
more traditional classes.
However, the changes in funding reportedly have had
the greatest effect on NGOs working on politically sensitive issues like women's
regulating NGOs also presents obstacles. Laws are "overcomplicated and
cumbersome," according to attorney Negar Katirai. Writing about the Iranian
legal environment for NGOs in "The International Journal Of Not-For-Profit Law,"
Katirai said the activities of a large number of decision-making centers are not
coordinated. Registration and regulation is often inconsistent.
The NGO community and the Interior Ministry met in November
2003 and eventually developed a revised law on NGOs. Katirai noted that the law
was reworked several times before its eventual rejection by the legislature. But
some of its components were incorporated in "Executive Regulations Concerning
the Formation and Activities of Nonovernmental Organizations" of June
In addition, the country's restrictive media environment
makes it difficult to disseminate information about civil-society activities and
But any efforts to eliminate NGOs would likely meet with
stubborn resistance. Many of them have helped many Iranians assert greater
control over their lives. And they are institutions built on a culture of
self-help and mutual assistance.
Copyright (c) 2006 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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