The Good And Bad Of Cutting Iran Democracy Funding
By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL
The U.S. decision to
million in democracy funds for Iran has led to mixed reactions
among Iranian-Americans, Iran analysts, rights activists, and others.
Many have criticized the decision and described it as an abandonment of Iran's
reformists and human rights activists and a blow to the democracy movement.
Yet others have welcomed the decision, including
Reza Aslan writing in "The Daily Beast" who said that he
along with many Iranian-Americans working for change in Iran are glad about the
U.S. decision to cut the funds.
Aslan then describes his visit to one of the many Farsi-language television
stations based in Los Angeles that broadcast a mix of news and entertainment
programs to Iran and has reportedly benefited from U.S. taxpayers money:
Inside the studios of NITV, I met with the
station's founder, Zia Atabay, an Iranian-American businessman and former
pop star in pre-revolutionary Iran. With his broad, regal forehead,
penetrating eyes, and startlingly black toupee, Atabay is an intimidating
figure. He told me he had initially begun NITV as a business venture, but
quickly recognized that he had a powerful stage on which to incite
revolution and regime change in Iran.
"I want to show [Iranians] that their country is a prison," he told me in
his reserved yet booming voice.
With millions of viewers inside Iran, satellite stations like NITV wield
enormous influence. And yet conversations with the young Iranians who view
these stations yield expressions of gratitude ("I love the new Mansour
video!") mixed with utter contempt, even mockery, of the anti-Islamic
republic propaganda the stations offer. It is not that these young Iranians
do not loathe their regime as much as the Zia Atabays of the world do. The
thought of risking their lives to bring down a brutal regime because a
millionaire Iranian living in a mansion in Beverly Hills told them to do so
is too laughable to be taken seriously.
The original designation of the fund by the Bush administration to promote
political change led to criticism by rights advocates inside Iran who said that
the move would lead to increased pressure on them.
Prominent figures such as investigative journalist Akbar Ganji and human rights
lawyer Shirin Ebadi criticized the move and said that it would damage civil
society and the reform movement.
A colleague of Ebadi, Abdolfatah Soltani, reacted to the Obama administration's
telling the BBC that the funds have little connection with
the real struggle for democracy in Iran. Soltani, who is a prominent human
rights lawyer, added that civil society activists never received such funds and
that the end of the program will not have any impact on their activities.
Many of the groups that received the money are reportedly based in the United
States and some, as Aslan pointed out, have little understanding of the
situation inside the country and are usually not taken seriously by those
fighting for change inside the country.
But among the beneficiaries were also bodies that do serious work on Iran,
including documenting human rights violations and publishing reports on past
One of these groups is the
Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, which, amongst other
things, documented the mass execution of dissidents and opposition members in
One of the cofounders of the center, Payam Akhavan, told RFE/RL in July that the
documenting post-election human rights abuses in Iran.
U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman
reacted to the cutting of funds by saying in a statement
that: "it is disturbing that the State Department would cut off funding at
precisely the moment when these brave investigations are needed most."
Many, including Aslan, believe that instead of designating funds for democracy
promotion in Iran, the United States should bring up the issue of human rights
violations in its negotiations with Iran.
By working toward the normalization of ties between the United States and Iran,
Aslan argues that President Obama is laying the groundwork for "real,
meaningful, and lasting reforms in Iran."
Copyright (c) 2009 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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