WASHINGTON, August 11, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The most recent expression of official distrust was the government's ban in early August of a human rights group led by Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi.
There are thousands of such entities currently operating in Iran, with estimates ranging from 8,000 to 20,000. They include charities, as well as organizations that deal with youth affairs, environmental issues, women, human rights, and vulnerable groups.
The former administration of reformist President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) encouraged the creation of NGOs and earmarked funding for their establishment. The main goal of the reformists was political development.
And the development of civil-society entities like NGOs was seen as an essential part of this process. Even as his second term in office ended, Khatami revealed his continuing confidence in NGOs by registering a group that would focus on the "dialogue among civilizations," the motto of his presidency.
Not everyone shares this enthusiasm for NGOs.
Some Iranian conservatives regard them as suspicious Western-style institutions that are inappropriate for the Islamic republic. The hard-line Islamic Coalition Party's Hamid Reza Taraqi called it "impossible to deal with the people's demands by setting up NGOs," "Etemad" reported on July 28, 2005. Taraqi offered that such groups "are based on the Western way of thinking and models that are not in tune with [Iran's] cultural structure and civilizations."
Taraqi also criticized the Khatami administration for allocating funds for NGOs. He predicted that President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's administration would adopt a different approach.
"Instead of promoting such formations and Western models," Taraqi said, Ahmadinejad "will try to make use of the mosque and religious teams...in order to pursue public demands." He suggested that such institutions "are more commensurate with the indigenous culture."
Taraqi's prediction appeared prescient when the Ahmadinejad administration submitted its budget to the parliament. The amount of money allocated to religious institutions, seminaries, and outreach entities was increased. In some cases, the budget increases surpassed 100 percent, "Etemad" reported on February 15.
The initial impression might be that this change in emphasis reflects the conservative tendencies of the president and his associates, and some legislators objected to these developments.
It is noteworthy that such a shift -- and an accompanying reallocation of resources -- is not peculiar to the Ahmadinejad administration. Other Iranian executives have done the same, and these moves could merely reflect Ahmadinejad's effort to distance himself from the policies of his predecessor. Moreover, shifting funds to mosque-based organizations could be a way of working with those civil-society institutions that are most familiar to the president's political base among the country's more traditional classes.
Shirin Ebadi speaking to reporters in Tehran on July 3 about civil-society issues (AFP)
However, the changes in funding reportedly have had the greatest effect on NGOs working on politically sensitive issues like women's rights.
Legislation regulating NGOs also presents obstacles. Laws are "overcomplicated and cumbersome," according to attorney Negar Katirai. Writing about the Iranian legal environment for NGOs in "The International Journal Of Not-For-Profit Law," Katirai said the activities of a large number of decision-making centers are not coordinated. Registration and regulation is often inconsistent.
The NGO community and the Interior Ministry met in November 2003 and eventually developed a revised law on NGOs. Katirai noted that the law was reworked several times before its eventual rejection by the legislature. But some of its components were incorporated in "Executive Regulations Concerning the Formation and Activities of Nonovernmental Organizations" of June 2005.
In addition, the country's restrictive media environment makes it difficult to disseminate information about civil-society activities and needs.
But any efforts to eliminate NGOs would likely meet with stubborn resistance. Many of them have helped many Iranians assert greater control over their lives. And they are institutions built on a culture of self-help and mutual assistance.