Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Iranian democrats tell US where to stick its $85m

by Golnaz Esfandiari 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, and this includes American money to continue their efforts to promote democracy in Iran. The Bush administration has US$75 million in emergency funding to promote democracy in Iran, in addition to $10 million already budgeted. 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 said. "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 US aid would include $25 million to support "political dissidents, labor union leaders, and human-rights activists" in additional to non-governmental groups outside Iran. The declared aim is to allow them to build support inside the country. The US 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 US. And $15 million is earmarked for other measures, such as expanding Internet access, which is tightly controlled in Iran. Wary of perceptions Authorities in Iran keep a tight lid on public expression, but most activists inside the country would be wary of being labeled pro-American. Dadkhah said that if activists were to accept the US aid, they would immediately be branded US spies and accused of endangering Iran's national security. "Independent forces would go close to these financial funds," Dadkhah said. "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, warned that US financial aid would threaten the independence of those seeking increased freedoms and put them at risk with officials. Momeni said that those working for democracy in Iran instead needed 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 said. "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." 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 added that the independent Iranian opposition had always battled with no expectation of financial assistance from "interested foreign powers". It also pledged that members would continue their efforts until a "free, independent and democratic Iran" emerged. A respected human-rights activist and lawyer, Mehrangiz Kar is an Iranian woman who lives in the United States. Kar told Radio Farda that while money was 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 US funding was involved]," Kar said. "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 US 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 was harder to put such concepts into practice. Milani warned the US against support for "regime change" through violence or for ethnic groups seeking independence from Tehran. He insisted that any new US aid must empower "existing democrats, not create democrats from [among] those with close ties to Washington". Meanwhile, Iranian officials have described the US 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. Golnaz Esfandiari, born in Tehran, has a master's degree in clinical psychology from Prague's Charles University. Her writing focuses on politics, human rights, and social issues in Iran and Afghanistan.

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