When “promoting democracy” is dangerous

 In Iran

A coalition of more than 20 organizations, including Peace Action, has signed a letter to members of Congress on the House and Senate Appropriations Committees urging them to cut funding for flawed “democracy promotion” programs in Iran.  Rather than negotiating directly with the Iranian government to address a wide array of concerns, the US government is considering as much as $75 million to fund groups within Iran that work to promote human rights and democracy.  While the idea may sound admirable on the surface, it contributes to the persecution of human rights activists in Iran and fuels the Iranian government’s fears that the US is trying to incite a “velvet revolution” in Iran or otherwise bring about regime change, causing them to crack down on dissent.

Many prominent Iranian activists, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, have come out in opposition to this program.  Haleh Esfandiari, who recently returned from eight months in detention in Iran on accusations of conspiring against the Iranian regime, joined with Robert Litwak to criticize the program and propose alternatives:

Current U.S. policy precludes broad government-to-government talks with Iran and seems to permit only episodic ambassadorial discussions in Baghdad on Iraqi issues — meetings that serve as a forum for dueling talking points. U.S. law places formidable restrictions on the ability of American NGO’s to operate in Iran. Meanwhile, while eschewing official contact, the United States attempts to financially support Iran’s own nascent NGO’s so that they can become agents of change within the society. Yet this program of democracy promotion has had the unintended consequence of further reducing the political space for open debate in Iran. In this new climate of intimidation, NGO’s and journalists are subject to censorship and are defensively engaging in self-censorship. Prominent Iranian activists, such as the Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, declared their opposition to the U.S. program because of continued sensitivity about foreign, particularly American, intrusion in Iran’s domestic politics. The fact that the identity of Iranian recipients of U.S. aid is regarded as classified information by the U.S. government feeds the regime’s paranoia and casts suspicion on all Iranian NGO’s.

The intractable realities in the diplomatic arena and on the ground in Iran call for a change of approach to one that would reverse the current focus of U.S. policy: Governments should talk to governments, while Iranian and American NGO’s should be permitted to interact in a transparent fashion without the intrusion of governments. If the United States is to have any chance of enlisting Iranian cooperation on issues of major concern — stabilizing Iraq and resolving the nuclear impasse — it must make clear that its objective is a change in Iranian behavior, not a change of regime. That would shift the onus to Tehran and force its multiple power centers to confront the consequences of Ahmadinejad’s policies for Iranian interests. Although such a U.S. assurance is no guarantee of success, it is the prerequisite for a change in Iranian foreign-policy behavior, as well as for positioning the United States to win multilateral support for meaningful action at the United Nations if Iranian intransigence continues.

In tandem with a shift on the government-to-government level, the counterproductive democracy-promotion program aimed at Iranian NGO’s should be scrapped in favor of a more permissive U.S. stance toward the operation of U.S. nonprofit organizations in Iran. Under current U.S. law, nongovernmental organizations must apply for licenses to operate in Iran on a case-by-case basis. Several NGO’s were granted one-year waivers to provide humanitarian relief after the Bam earthquake, in 2003, only to be required to promptly withdraw as the deadline neared. The lifting of this restriction would permit American NGO’s, notwithstanding the current negative political climate, to operate on the ground and interact with their Iranian counterparts. The change would be a significant step in addressing the crisis of legitimacy that now surrounds Iranian NGO activities because of the classified U.S. aid program and its perceived link to a U.S. strategy of regime change.

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