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Iran: Dissidents Debate Merits Of U.S. Democracy Aid

By Breffni O'Rourke

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 dissidents.

Tainted Money?

"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."

In its 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 positions.

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 outsiders.

"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 supports.

"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."

Atri 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 nuclear weapons.

Repression, Regardless

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 dissidents.

"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

He 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 his 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.

Still, Parsi argues that the "tragedy" of U.S. funding has effectively divided Iranian activists. He 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 continue.

"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 there."

(RFE/RL's Radio Farda contributed to this report.)

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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