Denying Iran’s Democrats

with Emily Blout

Last night, Congress dealt a severe blow to the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people. By re-appropriating the infamous Iran “Democracy” Fund, Congress showed blatant disregard for the well being and the wishes of Iranian pro-democracy activists.

The $60 million awarded Tuesday as part of the giant FY08 appropriations package is a Congressional nod of approval of the Bush Administration’s discredited Iran policy.

Little known in the US, but infamous in Iran, this program is seen as an attempt to affect regime change through Iranian civil society organizations. The Iranian government has used this perceived threat as a pretext to crack down on human rights workers, civil society activists and anyone who dares to question the government or maintain contacts with the West.

Civil society activists arrested by the Iranian authorities have repeatedly been questioned on whether they have accepted State Department funds.

Those at the forefront of the fight for democracy in Iran have refused to accept the funds, and prominent human rights groups, foreign policy experts and Iranian activists have all denounced it. This includes Iranian Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, dissident journalist Akbar Ganji and Iranian-American scholar Haleh Esfandiari.

They have written extensively against the funding and have urged Congress to scrap the program.

Unfortunately, by re-appropriating the fund this year, Congress has shown that the wishes of Iran’s pro-democracy leaders matter little to US lawmakers.

Still, Congress has recognized the program has been ineffective and that additional funding is unwarranted. The State Department apparently also agrees, and has taken the administration of the program out of the hands of ideologues in the Department.

Given such strong case against these funds, it is deplorable that Congress would persist to fund it.

But all is not lost. If Congress insists on dismissing the wishes of Iranian pro-democracy activists, the State Department may show greater sensitivity to the concerns of the people the fund purportedly aims to assist.

By refocusing the funds on positive elements of the mandate – people to people exchanges in various fields such as art, music, sports, and science – and decreasing the counterproductive elements that have made the work of Iranian activists all the harder, the damage of Congress’ unfortunate decision can be minimized.

Emily Blout is Acting Legislative Director at the National Iranian American Council.