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Iran: Political Activists To Steer Clear Of Possible U.S. Funding

(RFE/RL) Prominent activists and political opponents of Iran's hard-line administration are warning that U.S. funds designated to help civic groups could backfire. The Bush administration recently (in February) announced plans to seek $75 million in emergency funding to promote democracy in Iran, in addition to $10 million already budgeted. A loose affiliation of intellectuals at home and abroad has rejected such aid as "an insult" to the Iranian people. And the fear of any perception of subservience to a foreign government is strong.

PRAGUE, April 4, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- While gauging public opinion can be a tall order in Iran, many of those who have spoken out so far say they are keen to maintain their independence. They say they don't need American money to continue their efforts to promote democracy in Iran.

Mohammad Ali Dadkhah is a co-founder of the Center for Human Rights Defenders. Dadkhah tells RFE/RL that democratic changes should come from inside the country -- without outside interference.

"Democracy is not a product that we can import from another country," Dadkhah says. "We have to prepare the ground for it so that it can grow and bear fruit -- especially because independent and national forces, and also self-reliant forces, in Iran will never accept a foreign country telling them what to do and which way to take."

The proposed U.S. aid would include $25 million to support "political dissidents, labor union leaders, and human rights activists" in additional to nongovernmental groups outside Iran. The declared aim is to allow them to build support inside the country.

The U.S. administration also wants $50 million to set up round-the-clock television broadcasting in Persian to beam into Iran. Another $5 million is aimed at allowing Iranian students and scholars to study in the United States. And $15 million is earmarked for other measures like expanding Internet access, which is tightly controlled in Iran.

Wary Of Perceptions

It can be difficult to measure broad public opinion in Iran, whose authorities keep a tight lid on public expression. But most activists inside the country would be wary of being labeled pro-American.

Dadkhah says that if activists were to accept the U.S. aid, they would immediately be branded U.S. spies and accused of endangering Iran's national security.

"Independent forces would go close to these financial funds," Dadkhah says. "We have to work through legal paths and logical channels so that democracy, freedom, and human rights are fully respected in this country."

Abdollah Momeni, an outspoken Iranian student leader, warns that U.S. financial aid would threaten the independence of those seeking increased freedoms and put them at the official risk.

Momeni tells RFE/RL that those working for democracy in Iran instead need moral support and international recognition.

"Under the current conditions, the support of the international community and pressure on the authoritarian Iranian regime to recognize democratic principles in Iranian society could help the Iranian people achieve democracy," Momeni says. "The only result of financial aid would be to inflame sensitivities, put civil society activists under threat, and give the regime an excuse to suppress opponents and opposition members."

Fiercely 'Independent Opposition'

A loose alliance of political activists and intellectuals calling itself the Independent Iranian Opposition has issued a statement declaring that "only the people will determine Iran's fate." It adds that the independent Iranian opposition has always battled with no expectation of financial assistance from "interested foreign powers." It also pledges that members will continue their efforts until a "free, independent, and democratic Iran" emerges.

A respected human-rights activist and lawyer, Mehrangiz Kar is an Iranian woman who lives in the United States.

Kar tells Radio Farda that while money is important for rights groups to function, "security" is even more crucial to their effectiveness.

"The shaky security under which human rights and democracy activists are working in Iran would become even shakier and more uncertain [if U.S. funding is involved]," Kar says. "So, in my opinion, if they could provide security and money, that would be ideal. But since they can't, sending money through government channels is one of the most damaging ways that has been adopted in the name of helping democracy and human rights in Iran."

Abbas Milani is a distinguished Iranian scholar and co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution. Milani questions whether the new U.S. initiative would achieve its goal of fostering democracy. He pointed out in a joint contribution with Michael McFaul to "The Wall Street Journal" on March 6 that while "outsiders find it easy to support democracy rhetorically," it is harder to put such concepts into practice.

Milani warns the United States against support for "regime change" through violence or for ethnic groups seeking independence from Tehran. He insists that any new U.S. aid must empower "existing democrats, not create democrats from [among] those with close ties to Washington."

Meanwhile, Iranian officials have described the U.S. administration's funding request as "provocative and interventionist."

Iranian media reported in March that the Foreign Ministry sent a letter of protest to Washington over the plan. Not to be outdone, Iranian lawmakers have approved about $15 million to "discover and neutralize American plots and intervention" in their country.

(Radio Farda's Maryam Ahmadi contributed to this report.)

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.