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The Good And Bad Of Cutting Iran Democracy Funding

The U.S. decision to cut $85 million in democracy funds for Iran has led to mixed reactions among Iranian-Americans, Iran analysts, rights activists, and others.

Many have criticized the decision and described it as an abandonment of Iran’s reformists and human rights activists and a blow to the democracy movement.

Yet others have welcomed the decision, including Reza Aslan writing in “The Daily Beast” who said that he along with many Iranian-Americans working for change in Iran are glad about the U.S. decision to cut the funds.

Aslan then describes his visit to one of the many Farsi-language television stations based in Los Angeles that broadcast a mix of news and entertainment programs to Iran and has reportedly benefited from U.S. taxpayers money:

Inside the studios of NITV, I met with the station’s founder, Zia Atabay, an Iranian-American businessman and former pop star in pre-revolutionary Iran. With his broad, regal forehead, penetrating eyes, and startlingly black toupee, Atabay is an intimidating figure. He told me he had initially begun NITV as a business venture, but quickly recognized that he had a powerful stage on which to incite revolution and regime change in Iran.

“I want to show [Iranians] that their country is a prison,” he told me in his reserved yet booming voice.

With millions of viewers inside Iran, satellite stations like NITV wield enormous influence. And yet conversations with the young Iranians who view these stations yield expressions of gratitude (“I love the new Mansour video!”) mixed with utter contempt, even mockery, of the anti-Islamic republic propaganda the stations offer. It is not that these young Iranians do not loathe their regime as much as the Zia Atabays of the world do. The thought of risking their lives to bring down a brutal regime because a millionaire Iranian living in a mansion in Beverly Hills told them to do so is too laughable to be taken seriously.

The original designation of the fund by the Bush administration to promote political change led to criticism by rights advocates inside Iran who said that the move would lead to increased pressure on them.

Prominent figures such as investigative journalist Akbar Ganji and human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi criticized the move and said that it would damage civil society and the reform movement.

A colleague of Ebadi, Abdolfatah Soltani, reacted to the Obama administration's decision by telling the BBC that the funds have little connection with the real struggle for democracy in Iran. Soltani, who is a prominent human rights lawyer, added that civil society activists never received such funds and that the end of the program will not have any impact on their activities.

Many of the groups that received the money are reportedly based in the United States and some, as Aslan pointed out, have little understanding of the situation inside the country and are usually not taken seriously by those fighting for change inside the country.

But among the beneficiaries were also bodies that do serious work on Iran, including documenting human rights violations and publishing reports on past abuses.

One of these groups is the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, which, amongst other things, documented the mass execution of dissidents and opposition members in the 1980s.

One of the cofounders of the center, Payam Akhavan, told RFE/RL in July that the group is documenting post-election human rights abuses in Iran.

U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman reacted to the cutting of funds by saying in a statement that: "it is disturbing that the State Department would cut off funding at precisely the moment when these brave investigations are needed most.”

Many, including Aslan, believe that instead of designating funds for democracy promotion in Iran, the United States should bring up the issue of human rights violations in its negotiations with Iran.

By working toward the normalization of ties between the United States and Iran, Aslan argues that President Obama is laying the groundwork for "real, meaningful, and lasting reforms in Iran."

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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