Monday, December 17, 2007

Congress Set to Vote on Controversial So-Called 'Democracy Promotion' Funding

Despite opposition from prominent organizations and individuals, including key Iranian dissidents such as Akbar Ganji and Shirin Ebadi, Congress is pressing forward with funding for a controversial program that undermines U.S.-Iran relations. Later today, the House will vote on a consolidated State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2008. Following the reconciliation of the House and Senate versions in conference, Section 693 of the bill provides for $60 million to be made available for “programs to promote democracy, the rule of law and governance in Iran.”

There are several reasons why this funding is a bad idea. For starters, Iranian reformists believe that democracy can't be imported. It must be indigenous. They believe that the best the US can do for democracy in Iran is to leave them alone. The fact is, no truly nationalist and democratic group will accept such funds.

The secrecy surrounding the distribution of these funds has created immense problems for Iranian reformers and human rights activists. Aware of their own deep unpopularity, the hardliners in Iran are terrified by the prospect of a “velvet revolution” and have become obsessed with preventing contacts between Iranian scholars, artists, journalists and political activists and their American counterparts.

Noninterference in Iran's domestic affairs is a legal obligations of the United States. This was stipulated in the Algiers Accord that the United States signed with Iran in 1981 to end the hostage crisis.

For all of these reasons, 25 organizations signed a letter to House and Senate Conferees in September. The letter made the case for reprogramming the funds to better support Iranian democratic activists. According to the organizations:

“We believe this program, intended to aid the cause of democracy in Iran, has failed and instead invigorated a campaign by conservative regime elements to harass and intimidate those seeking reform and greater openness in Iran. As segments of the U.S. Administration tout regime change, secret State Department “democracy promotion” funding has enabled Iranian authorities to label those supporting reforms or engagement with the West as foreign agents and traitors. Recent detentions of Iranian-American scholars, journalists, union leaders, student activists and others are widely viewed as responses to threats posed by U.S.- funded efforts.

“Iranian reformers believe democracy cannot be imported and must be based on indigenous institutions and values. Intended beneficiaries of the funding, -- human rights advocates, civil society activists and others -- uniformly denounce the program. “Washington’s policy of ‘helping’ the cause of democracy has backfired,” wrote Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi in the International Herald Tribune recently. “The Bush Administration should put an end to its misguided policy.” Others respected human rights activists, including Akbar Ganji and Emad Baghi, voice similar sentiments. The fact is, given the current dynamic of conflict between the U.S. and Iranian governments, no organization inside Iran can openly accept funding from the U.S. Government.

“The inability of the State Department to expend funds in this account from previous years and its failure to respond to Congressional inquiries for information about the program, further justify its elimination. The program’s fundamental flaw is reflected in the State Department’s inability to generate realistic proposals for activities inside Iran. Less than half of funds allocated in previous years for “democracy programs” in Iran have been expended -- on activities unknown.

“As supporters of the values of democracy, we believe any such funding would be better spent on activities outside Iran which could facilitate openness and still promote civil society. We urge Congress to mandate that the Department of State take into account the views of democracy advocates living in Iran -- the intended beneficiaries of the funding. As people-to-people exchanges involving scholars, artists, athletes, groups of professionals and others are proven to foster understanding and cooperation, we urge you to include language in the bill to ease restrictions which make it extremely difficult for NGOs to implement exchanges. Iranian civil society advocates welcome access to information technologies that help expand their access to internet and other media. Finally, while funding for radio and television broadcasting to Iran is extremely important and useful, given the large expansion of Voice of America’s Farsi service last year, we believe further funding should be contingent upon a thorough evaluation of current programming.

“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.”

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