Groups Urge Congress to Stop Funding Failed Iran “Democracy” Program
Washington DC - Twenty-six organizations issued a joint letter today calling on Congress to eliminate or reprogram the $75 million proposed for the State Department “Iran democracy promotion” programs. The groups, citing overwhelming opposition to the program by activists inside Iran, urge Congress to reconsider the program due to the harm it has done to the very values and people the US funding aims to assist.
The letter’s signatories are a convergence of organizations concerned about the negative impact of the State Department’s program on the pro-democracy movement and human rights conditions inside Iran. The initiative is being spearheaded by the National Iranian American Council, the American Conservative Defense Alliance, and the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation.
“This money has made all Iranian NGOs targets and put them at great risk,” said Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council. “While the Iranian government has not needed a pretext to harass its own population, it would behoove Congress not to provide it with one.”
In September, the Appropriations Committee recommended the Iran “democracy” funding be limited to $25 million due to the State Department’s failure to effectively implement the program, the secrecy surrounding recipients, and the resulting backlash against democracy advocates inside Iran.
Iranian human rights activists support the committee’s assessment. They say that the Iranian government sees the U.S. funding program as a tool to exact regime change through Iranian civil society and has used this perceived threat as a pretext to crackdown on the Iranian population at large. Rather than promoting democracy, say Iranian activists such as dissident journalist Akbar Ganji and Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, the funding has narrowed the space for the pro-democracy movement to operate.
Earlier this year, Iranian authorities arrested four Americans of Iranian descent, accusing them of having accepted US government funds to promote regime change in Iran. Students, labor leaders, artists, rights activists and others have been similarly arrested, harassed and intimidated on the grounds of their support for reforms and any interaction with international organizations or individuals.
Despite the obvious failings of the program, Senator Joseph Lieberman successfully offered an amendment to increase funds in the FY 2008 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations by $50 million to a total of $75 million.
Michael Ostrolenk of the American Conservative Defense Alliance pointed to the need to facilitate direct people-to-people contacts between Americans and Iranians without government interference. “Not only do we need to terminate this wasteful and counter-productive program, we need to get rid of US sanctions that prevent American NGOs from reaching out to ordinary Iranians,” Ostrolenk said.
Under current US law, American NGOs are prohibited from working in Iran.
The letter asks Congress to consider such overwhelming opposition to this program and heed the wishes of Iranian activists on the ground. It urges bill conferees to eliminate or reprogram funding for activities that can genuinely advance civil society and the cause of democracy, such as people-to-people exchanges.
The letter concludes, “Congress can and should play a constructive role in promoting democracy in Iran and elsewhere. Eliminating so-called democracy promotion programs in Iran, and reprogramming such funds for activities that Iranian democratic activists want, are good first steps.”