Iran's Crackdown Cools U.S. Outreach Efforts

The arrest of Iranian-American Haleh Esfandiari and several others is having a major effect in the United States. Iranian-Americans are more fearful now to travel to Iran, or to take part in meetings with democracy and human rights activists. That has put a chill into U.S. efforts to promote democracy in Iran.

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Iranian-American Haleh Esfandiari may have gotten out of a Tehran prison on bail this week; still, her arrest, along with several others, is having a major effect in the U.S. Iranian-Americans are more fearful now to travel to Iran or take part in meetings with democracy and human rights activists.

That's put a chill on U.S. efforts to promote democracy in Iran, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: When she was on the State Department's Policy Planning staff, Suzanne Maloney says she raised many concerns about U.S. plans to spend millions of dollars to support civil society groups in Iran. She looked over some of the initial applications and realized the Bush administration would have trouble finding enough good projects to fund in a responsible way.

Ms. SUZANNE MALONEY (Brookings Institution): There's just a dearth of organizations that have on the ground experience in Iran, very limited contacts between U.S. nonprofit, academic communities, and those inside Iran. And those contacts that do exist are obviously under a great deal of pressure because of the Iranian regime's reaction.

KELEMEN: Iranian authorities have been investigating what they see as a U.S. effort to promote regime change through a so-called soft revolution. After Woodrow Wilson scholar Haleh Esfandiari and an urban planning specialist, Kian Tajbakhsh, were charged with endangering the Iranian government, even something as simple as a scholarly conference seemed dangerous.

Iranian-Americans like Truta Parsi(ph) called off plans to go to Iran, and he says contacts between Iranians and Americans have suffered.

Mr. TRUTA PARSI: There's far less exchanges. There's far less people attending conferences. There's far less people been willing to travel to Iran or to travel to places where there are Iranians. And this is primarily because of the way that the Iranian government is behaving itself, and arresting people in trumped-up charges and not giving them access to their legal representation.

KELEMEN: At least one nonprofit group here in Washington put its Iran program on hold, worried about endangering Iranians who might attend meetings.

Suzanne Maloney, now with the Brookings Institution, says many others have had to rethink their plans. She says the secrecy in the way the U.S. is supporting civil society in Iran has made matters worse.

Ms. MALONEY: By classifying the recipients of the funding, what we've done is effectively implicate all Iranians who have any contacts with the U.S. or with international organizations across the board in the prospect, at least, of some involvement with American funding.

KELEMEN: The State Department says it leaves it up to aid recipients as to whether they want to publicize the fact that they get U.S. democracy dollars. Officials don't want to put Iranians at risk. U.S. officials also argue that Iran already had a long history of suppressing dissent, so the U.S. shouldn't be restrained by that.

Meanwhile, democracy promoters continue to work quietly behind the scenes. The International Republican Institute, funded by Congress, though not with the Iran democracy dollars, holds training sessions outside Iran to teach civil society groups basic communications and organizational skills.

Thomas Garrett, who runs IRI's Middle East program, wouldn't be more specific than that, saying work on Iran was difficult even before the latest crackdown.

Mr. THOMAS GARRETT (International Republican Institute): So it really wasn't affected by what occurred with Ms. Esfandiari. We were already finding it, you know, a situation that needed to be dealt with very discreetly, very sensitively.

KELEMEN: Much like, he says, IRI's work on authoritarian states like Belarus or Burma.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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