By Dan Robinson, VOA, Washington
A senior State Department official has told Congress that the United States is not lessening its support for reformers in Iran and U.S.-based organizations supporting them. Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman responded to lawmakers concerned about what they call signs of diminished support for some U.S.-based organizations working in support of Iran's democracy and reform advocates.
President Obama and administration officials insist there is no question of any lessening of overall U.S. support for civil society and democracy groups seeking democratic reforms in Iran.
Earlier this year, after the disputed Iranian presidential election, the president faced sharp criticism from minority Republicans that he had not voiced sufficient moral support for demonstrators in the streets protesting the outcome.
President Obama has recently faced additional criticism after the State Department denied funding to some organizations with projects supporting civil society, rule of law and human rights monitoring efforts in Iran.
Three groups mentioned in media reports are the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, a small nonpartisan group tracking human rights abuses in Iran, the non-partisan Freedom House, and the International Republican Institute (IRI).
Appearing before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on the Middle East, Assistant Secretary Feltman was pressed by Democrats and Republicans about Obama administration support generally for Iranian reform advocates, and specifically about funding decisions.
Committee chairman Democrat Gary Ackerman suggested that even as the administration attempts engagement with Iran, it could be doing more to underscore its support for democracy and reform advocates. "It might not be a bad idea to let people know verbally, out loud, for all the world to see, including them [reformers in Iran], the kind of support, at least talk, that we appreciate what they are doing and that we are inspired by their courage. Some statement," he said
Republican Congressman Bob Inglis implied that the administration's efforts to employ intensified diplomacy with Iran might be affecting funding decisions for specific democracy projects. "To have us back away from those [programs] in order to get some kind of engagement [it] seems to me, makes no sense because appeasement has never worked before and it seems to me to fly into that danger zone of appeasement, which is not wise policy," he said.
Noting that all organizations compete fiercely for funding, Feltman denied the Obama administration has backed away from groups supporting civil society and similar programs in Iran. "We are not backing away. We are going full steam ahead with our programs in Iran and across the region, again in order to create that space for civil societies to actually play the proper role that we would all understand in building more accountable democratic governing institutions," he said.
Congressional concern was also heard in a separate hearing of the full House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.
Republican Representative Chris Smith was among seven members of Congress who wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressing concern that programs promoting democracy, civil society and rule of law in Iran were being de-funded or halted. "There should be no question whatsoever as to whether the United States actively supports these essential goals of the Iranian people," he said.
Assistant Secretary Feltman told lawmakers Wednesday that while they might think they are hearing different messages now from the Obama administration regarding support for Iranian reformers, commitments remain the same as those President Obama expressed in the speech he delivered in Cairo last July, aimed at the Muslim world.
Feltman said State Department officials would be coming to Capitol Hill next week to meet with congressional committee staff and discuss more specifically programs that are being supported.
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