Iranian Dissidents Debate Merits Of U.S. Democracy Aid
November 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- There is a growing debate, inside and
outside Iran, about whether millions of dollars in U.S. pro-democracy aid to
Iranian dissidents is helping to build the foundations of civil society -- or
giving the regime in Tehran an excuse to crack down even harder on dissident
students, journalists, and other activists.
The debate pits
some of Iran's leading dissidents against one another on the issue of whether
the United States should continue to spend up to $75 million yearly to assist
the promotion of human rights and civil society in Iran.
The money, a
part of which helps fund RFE/RL broadcasts to Iran, is not distributed directly
to activists. Instead, it is reportedly channeled to them through third parties,
such as European nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that also support Iranian
democrats. Partly, that's done so that Iranian activists, in the eyes of the
clerical regime, don't appear "tainted" by direct U.S. support -- a perception
that some say could not only endanger them personally, but discredit their cause
inside Iran as well.
Nonetheless, last month in the United States several
organizations signed a statement by the National Iranian American Council (NIAC)
-- a group that represents the interests of Iranians in the United States --
that called for the U.S. aid to be cut off precisely because it "taints"
dissidents as being directly supported by Washington. The result, the NIAC
argued, is that the U.S. aid has sparked an even harsher crackdown on Iranian
"The money has made all Iranian
NGOs targets and put them at great risk," said Trita Parsi, president of NIAC,
which bills itself as the largest Iranian-American group in the United States.
"While the Iranian government has not needed a pretext to harass its own
population, it would behoove Congress not to provide it with one."
letter to U.S. lawmakers, the NIAC, which receives U.S. government funding for
Iran programs, said the money would be better spent on activities outside Iran
to promote civil society. "Iranian reformers believe democracy cannot be
imported," the letter said.
However, the NIAC letter alone, while
newsworthy, would not perhaps have raised as many eyebrows as it did. But then
some of Iran's leading dissidents quickly weighed in on the debate -- with
important voices staking out diametrically opposed
Investigative journalist Akbar Ganji, writing in "The
Washington Post" on October 26, said that U.S. aid to the pro-democracy movement
in Iran compromises recipients in the eyes of fellow Iranians and should be
stopped. Ganji said that for historical reasons, Iranians are usually
discredited when they accept money from foreign governments. He said that the
Iranian people do not want their democratic movement to be "dependent" on
"The support we need at this point has nothing to do with
funding the regime's opposition but with aiding Iranians in the quest for
independent media and accurate information," wrote Ganji, whose advocacy of
secular democracy in Iran won him six years in Tehran's notorious Evin prison on
charges of endangering national security.
But another Iranian dissident,
Akbar Atri, says it's precisely media broadcasting to Iran the U.S. money
"Iranians have already benefited immeasurably from democracy
funding, especially from the Persian-language broadcasts by Voice of America
television and Radio Farda ("Tomorrow"), for which a majority of the $75 million
at issue now is allocated," Atri, a former dissident student leader who has
lived in Washington since 2005, wrote in "The Wall Street Journal" on October
15. "These broadcasts offer news and perspectives to the Iranian public that
they would not otherwise have, including news regarding developments inside
their own country. The broadcasts are popular with millions of diverse Iranians
and have successfully broken the Islamic Republic's attempt to isolate the
country from external sources of information. The Iranian regime could not be
happier to see its popular nemeses -- VOA television and Radio Farda --
exterminated by Iranian-Americans and others purporting to do good."
also said the U.S. funding, because it supports civil society and moderate
voices in Iran, represents an important means for averting any military conflict
with Iran over its nuclear program, which Washington believes masks a drive for
Atri also ridiculed
the idea that U.S. funding is responsible for a recently intensified crackdown
by the Iranian regime on university students, intellectuals, union leaders,
reformist politicians and clerics, and other activists seeking change. He said
such intimidation and repression by the government has been going on since the
1979 Islamic Revolution, regardless of any U.S. support for
"Just this year, Iranian authorities have executed without
due process over 100 people, yet none were said to be connected to U.S.
democracy funds," wrote Atri, who was a leader in Daftar Tahkim Vahdat (Office
for Strengthening Unity), Iran's most prominent student organization
also took a sharp swipe at the NIAC, saying that criticism of U.S. support for
Iran's democracy movement "is not defensible when made by those who have barely
seen Iran, much less been a part of its struggle for freedom." He added that
"when Iranian-Americans who have no standing in Iran, and who have received no
backing from Iranians, claim to represent the will of all Iranians, I feel I
need to speak up."
The NIAC's Parsi, for her part, told RFE/RL that the
feedback it has received from Iranian NGOs has been "overwhelmingly and
intensely negative" toward the U.S. program. But Atri noted that no dissidents
in Iran would dare to speak up for U.S. support. "If they do, they will be
subject to immediate retaliation by the regime," he wrote.
argues that the "tragedy" of U.S. funding has effectively divided Iranian
activists. She said a rift has emerged separating activists in the country who
work on the front lines of the democracy movement and are suffering as a result
of the U.S. program, and those on the outside who have become dependent on the
funds for their own livelihood.
Parsi says such divisions play into the
hands of the Iranian government, which would like nothing better than to see the
fragmentation of the democracy movement.
In Washington, U.S. State
Department spokesman Rob McInturff said the administration of President George
W. Bush believes the funding for Iran's democracy movement must
"We are listening to the criticism, and we are listening to the
success stories [of U.S. funding]," McInturff told RFE/RL. "Our policy to date
is that we want to continue moving forward. It's not a straight line of
progress, but we feel it's important to keep moving on these programs, to keep
pushing these types of reform elements in the hopes that in time this will
blossom into a more open, a more democratic, and a more free society
(RFE/RL's Radio Farda contributed to this
Copyright (c) 2007 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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