Funds for 'Civil Society' in Iran Raise Concerns

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The U.S. State Department has a $75 million budget to promote better relations with Iran. But some observers say a portion of the money, spent to promote democracy, is causing problems for rights activists.


Earlier in our conversation Gareth Smyth mentioned a soft revolution. The Bush administration would like to ignite one by paying to promote human rights and democracy in Iran.

We turn now to NPR's Michele Kelemen for more on concerns some human rights activists have about that money endangering their work.

MICHELE KELEMEN: A year ago, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked Congress for $75 million to promote civil society in Iran. Most of the money went to U.S.-funded radio and television aimed at Iran.

Hadi Ghaemi of Human Rights Watch has no problem with that aid or with the money that goes to bring Iranian artists, scholars or even wrestlers to the U.S. He is, though, worried about some $20 million meant to help NGOs, or nongovernmental groups, promote democracy in Iran.

Mr. HADI GHAEMI (Human Rights Watch): By now we have much empirical evidence that people are continuously being detained, interrogated and harassed by any ties to this American money. But it is not to say that the government of Iran would not have done this campaign of harassment against NGOs anyway, but now it has the perfect excuse to legitimize and justify its action.

KELEMEN: Ghaemi estimates that 100 Iranian human rights and democracy activists have been hauled in for questioning by intelligence officials in recent months.

Mr. GHAEMI: People are being asked about travels they made to conferences abroad, who they talked to, who they met, what were the conferences about, where the funding came from, to basically build up a hypothesis that all these activities were somehow supported or being planned through the State Department.

KELEMEN: Out at Stanford University, Abbas Milani, who runs the Hoover Institution's Iran Democracy Project, says he's made a point of staying clear of the State Department's democracy fund.

Mr. ABBAS MILANI (Iran Democracy Project, Hoover Institution): The Iran Democracy Project has not taken a penny of the State Department's money. We made a very conscious decision not to apply.

KELEMEN: Because he said he didn't want any participants in conferences to get into trouble back home in Iran. Milani believes the U.S. democracy dollars are mainly going to Washington-based NGOs, while democracy activists in Iran are shying away.

Mr. MILANI: If this money is for promotion of democracy to aid democratic personality, you cannot expect these people to engage in a covert action. That goes very much against the very brain of what being a democrat in a place, despotic place like Iran means.

KELEMEN: A well-known Iranian human rights activist, Emad Baghi, wrote a letter to his colleagues in the West urging them to push the U.S. government to be more transparent in its aid program because so many people who have not received aid are being harassed. Thomas Melia, deputy director of Freedom House, which does get U.S. government funding, says it's more complicated than that.

Mr. THOMAS MELIA (Deputy Director, Freedom House): There are other activists in Iran who appreciate the support they get from the international community, whether that's from the United States or European governments and groups or other places, and would like it to continue, and in some cases would like it to be rather discreet because they will be punished by the government of Iran for having contacts with foreigners and for doing the work they do.

KELEMEN: Melia says the situation in Iran is not unique. He says there's been a pushback against democracy promoters in many countries around the world.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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