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Cut Iran Democracy Funding, Groups Tell U.S.
Iranian Americans, Others Say Program Has Backfired

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 11, 2007

More than two dozen Iranian American and human rights groups have launched an appeal to Congress to reduce or eliminate new financial support of up to $75 million aimed at promoting democracy inside Iran.

The U.S. program, launched in 2006, backfired in its first year, undermining democracy efforts in Iran and leading to wider repression of activists as foreign agents or traitors, the groups said. Among those detained were four Iranian Americans, all charged with "crimes against national security" linked to the U.S. program. A second year of funding will further endanger democracy efforts, the groups added.

"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," according to an open letter organized by the National Iranian American Council, the American Conservative Defense Alliance and the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. The letter was signed by 23 other liberal and conservative pro-democracy groups.

"While the Iranian government has not needed a pretext to harass its own population, it would behoove Congress not to provide it with one," said Trita Parsi, NIAC president.

Human Rights Watch is among several groups lobbying against the program as the House and Senate appropriations committees negotiate the funding. "Giving tens of millions of dollars to support Iranian activists inside Iran is counterproductive," said Saman Zarifi of Human Rights Watch. "First, Iranian activists don't want it and can't get it. Second, it supports Iranian government efforts to cast activists as foreign agents."

The Senate originally recommended only $25 million for the second year of the program, citing the failure to fully spend the first year's funding, secrecy about recipients and the political backlash. It was later increased to $75 million at the request of the administration; the House earmarked $50 million.

The issue arose as California businessman Ali Shakeri arrived home in the United States on Tuesday after four months in an Iranian prison. He was the last of four Iranian American detainees to be freed, and the third allowed to leave Iran. In an interview, Shakeri said he expects to return to Iran to face charges. "They released me on bond to come to the U.S. and by court order, when they want me, I'll be there," he said in an interview. "This is not something which I will disobey. I gave up the property deed of my brother's place, which is worth about $110,000."

Shakeri was picked up March 8 at Tehran's international airport as he was about to fly out after visiting his ill mother, who died while he was in Tehran. The fourth American, New York-based Kian Tajbakhsh, is still in Iran. Washington scholar Haleh Esfandiari and journalist Parnaz Azima returned to the United States last month.

Meanwhile, in a sign of growing internal divisions, Iran's former chief nuclear negotiator scolded the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad yesterday for policies that have undermined both Tehran's standing in the world and its oil-rich economy.

"On the international stage, we are under threat more than any other time," said Hassan Rouhani, who still serves on Iran's Supreme National Security Council and two other powerful government councils. "The country's diplomacy will be successful if it doesn't allow the enemy to win the backing of other countries against us. Unfortunately, the number of our enemies are increasing," he told the pro-reform Moderation and Development Party, according to Iranian press reports.

Despite high prices for Iranian oil, Rouhani said, economic life has deteriorated under Ahmadinejad.

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