Iran On Guard Over U.S. Funds

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Bush administration's $75 million program to promote democracy in Iran has undermined the kind of organizations and activists it was designed to help, with U.S. aid becoming a top issue in a broader crackdown on leading democracy advocates over the past year, according to a wide range of Iranian activists and human rights groups.

Since Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice unveiled the program more than a year ago, a wide array of activists -- teachers, women's rights campaigners, labor organizers, students, journalists and intellectuals -- have faced interrogations, detentions, imprisonment and passport confiscation over suspected links to the new U.S. funding, activists and human rights groups say. Iranian officials have charged that Washington is supporting the kind of soft revolution that transformed Eastern Europe.

"Dozens of Iranian activists are paying a price since the announcement of the $75 million, and practically everyone who has been detained over the past year has been interrogated about receiving this money," said Hadi Ghaemi, Iran analyst for Human Rights Watch. "They are obsessed with the perception that the U.S. is fueling a velvet revolution through this money."

Fariba Davoodi Mohajer, an Iranian women's rights activist convicted in absentia last month for "gathering and collusion with intent to commit a crime against national security," said in an interview that "the $75 million systematically and continuously comes up in interrogations." She and three other women organized a rally last year to launch a million-signature campaign against sex discrimination. Mohajer was sentenced to four years in prison, with three years suspended on the condition that she not engage in similar activities for five years after her release. Her case is now on appeal.

Mohajer and other Iranian civil society leaders insist that they do not receive U.S. funding and do not want to be tainted by it. The majority of the U.S. money pays for Persian-language Radio Farda and Voice of America broadcasts into Iran, an interactive Web site, cultural exchanges and conferences, and support for international organizations advocating human rights in Iran, said R. Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs. The program, which is expected to increase to more than $100 million in fiscal 2008, marked a major increase in funding from earlier years.

"The money is being put to a very good use as it supports broader-scale engagement between the two societies. We want to break down the barriers erected over 27 years. This is only the beginning of it," Burns said.

A senior State Department official said that the United States has been "very careful" to try not to hurt the people it seeks to assist and has avoided giving money directly to individuals or groups. "We saw early on the problem we would pose if we tried to support them directly. We didn't want to get them into hot water. That's why we're doing it through third countries," he said.

Since the 2005 election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a network of hard-liners in the executive branch, the judiciary and the intelligence service has launched one of the toughest crackdowns since the 1979 revolution, the sources say. Iran now appears intent on silencing activists at home by arrest or intimidation and preventing them from traveling abroad.

"When the U.S. announces its support for civil society movements, it becomes a ready tool for the Iranian government to use against totally independent activists. It's been very counterproductive," Mohajer said.

The money is a persistent focus during interrogations, say Iranians who have been questioned or detained. "If you look at the crackdown on non-government organizations and human rights defenders over the past six months, one common facet is that they were all suspected of receiving foreign funds," said Zahir Janmohamed, Amnesty International USA's advocacy director for the Middle East. "It's not just the funding but the rhetoric around the funding about 'regime change' and the 'axis of evil.' "

The National Iranian American Council said it had warned the State Department "that the mere idea of sending money with this language would make the work of pro-democracy activists in Iran all the more difficult. It has turned out to be worse than what many people feared. The mere fact that the United States has been talking about using NGOs has made Iran's thriving civil society a main suspect of trying to do change inside Iran," said the council president, Trita Parsi.

In another reflection of sensitivity about U.S. funding, Iranian authorities confiscated the passport of Radio Farda correspondent Parnaz Azima, a U.S. and Iranian citizen, when she arrived in Tehran to visit her critically ill mother in January. During subsequent interrogations, she was asked to collaborate with Iranian intelligence, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty President Jeffrey Gedmin. Over half the U.S. funding goes to Farda's radio and television operations.

Azima's lawyer was informed by the security department of Iran's revolutionary court this week that her passport will not be returned anytime soon and that she will have to remain in Tehran "for two or three years," Gedmin said in a statement condemning Azima's virtual house arrest in Tehran.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company