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Backlash Feared to U.S. Funding in Iran

June 15, 2007

by Najmeh Bozorgmehr and Guy Dinmore
The Financial Times
June 15, 2007

The survival of Iranian non-governmental organisations is being threatened by the US administration’s continuing attempts to fund the country’s civil society, leading activists have warned. Prominent NGOs say the US funding, and Iranian suspicions that the money is designed to create the conditions for a “soft revolution”, have helped President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad justify a crackdown on their activities.

The recent arrests of four Iranian-American dual citizens – two on charges of espionage – have sharpened what was already a fierce debate in Tehran and Washington on whether the lack of transparency in identifying the recipients of US funding makes local activists vulnerable to action by the regime. The US State Department denies any of the four had funding from its programme.

After hesitant progress during the eight years of reformist President Mohammad Khatami, a third of Iran’s 8,000 or so NGOs, ranging from women’s rights groups to those campaigning on environmental and religious issues, are believed to have either completely halted or downgraded their activities since the election of Mr Ahmadi-Nejad in 2005.

“Activity for civil society has become even more costly than political activity due to US funding,” says Sohrab Razzaghi, head of Koneshgaran-e Davtalab, which trains civil society activists but was closed down by the judiciary in March without reason. “The government now sees us as the Trojan horse who function as the enemy’s fifth column.”

The US allocated $66.1m (€50m, £34m) in 2006 to promote democracy in the Islamic republic. Most of the money was for organisations outside Iran but $20m was earmarked for activities inside the country. Recipients remained anonymous unless they chose to reveal the funding themselves.

Critics in Tehran and Washington, including some within the US administration, allied governments and prominent NGOs, say this secret funding is damaging Iran’s NGO movement and the few US organisations working openly with Iranians, such as the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Open Society Institute.

Shaul Bakhash, the husband of Haleh Esfandiari of the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center, one of those arrested on espionage charges, is among those seeking more transparency.

“There is a general agreement among Iranian intellectuals inside Iran and academics outside that the loose talk of regime change and allocation of money supposed to advance democracy in Iran has done a great deal of harm to Iranian academics, intellectuals and re-searchers,” Mr Bakhash told the FT. “It also feeds the pa-ranoia of the Iranian regime of American intentions.”

But there is no sign the US administration will retreat. Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, made clear last month the US would not be deterred from funding pro-democracy efforts in Iran by requesting a sharp increase in spending to $75m for “civil society and human rights projects in Iran” in 2008.

A senior State Department official who asked not to be named dismissed the criticism and rejected such calls for transparency. The identity of recipients was kept classified for their own safety, he said.

One insider in Washington said some officials had even welcomed the backlash from Tehran, arguing that it would clarify the divisions between the Iranian government and “opposition”. He said that Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary leading Iran policy, was a keen proponent of the funding programme, seen as another lever to use against Tehran.

Asked if the funding added up to an attempt at “soft revolution”, as claimed by the Iranian government, a senior State Department official replied that the US was supporting Iranians who wanted to decide the course of their country’s future. The policy was in line with President George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda”, he said.

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