U.S. Push for Democracy Could Backfire Inside Iran

By Karl Vick and David Finkel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 14, 2006

TEHRAN -- Prominent activists inside Iran say President Bush's plan to spend tens of millions of dollars to promote democracy here is the kind of help they don't need, warning that mere announcement of the U.S. program endangers human rights advocates by tainting them as American agents.

In a case that advocates fear is directly linked to Bush's announcement, the government has jailed two Iranians who traveled outside the country to attend what was billed as a series of workshops on human rights. Two others who attended were interrogated for three days.

The workshops, conducted by groups based in the United States, were held last April, but Iranian investigators did not summon the participants until last month, about the time the Bush administration announced plans to spend $85 million "to support the cause of freedom in Iran this year."

"We are under pressure here both from hard-liners in the judiciary and that stupid George Bush," human rights activist Emad Baghi said as he waited anxiously for his wife and daughter to emerge from interrogation last week. "When he says he wants to promote democracy in Iran, he gives money to these outside groups and we're in here suffering."

The fallout illustrates the steep challenge facing the Bush administration as it seeks to play a role in a country where American influence is called unwelcome even by many who share the goal of increasing democratic freedoms.

"Unfortunately, I've got to say it has a negative effect, not a positive one," said Abdolfattah Soltani, a human rights lawyer recently released from seven months in prison. After writing in a newspaper that his clients were beaten while in jail, Soltani was charged with offenses that included spying for the United States.

"This is something we all know, that a way of dealing with human rights activists is to claim they have secret relations with foreign powers," said Soltani, who co-founded a human rights defense group with Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi. "This very much limits our actions. It is very dangerous to our society."

Activists here said the Bush initiative demonstrates the chasm that often separates those working inside Iran for greater freedoms -- carefully calibrating their actions to nudge incremental changes in a hostile system -- and the more strident approach of many Iranian exiles who often have the ear of Washington policymakers.

"Our society is very complicated," said Vahid Pourostad, editor of National Trust, a new newspaper aligned with Iran's struggling reform movement. "Generally speaking, it is impossible to impose something from outside. Whatever happens will happen from inside.

"It seems to me the United States is not studying the history of Iran very carefully," Pourostad said. "Whenever they came and supported an idea publicly, the public has done the opposite."

Advocates and ordinary Iranians say the U.S. project also may suffer from poor timing. Just four years ago, the Iranian public's appetite for greater freedom was vibrant here, with a reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, returned to office in a landslide and his allies in control of parliament.

But public disillusionment grew steadily as the reformists failed to wrest crucial powers from the appointed clerics who control much of the power in Iran's theocratic system of government. The clerics cemented their grip by excluding dissenters from subsequent elections.

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