Foreign Policy Blogs

Barack Obama Does Not Care About Iranian People?

It sounds like a travesty when you hear that the Obama Administration has cut down funding to Iranian human rights groups, until you take a deeper look at the facts.

Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, Freedom House and International Republican Institute (IRI) will be among the groups that will be denied State Department funding this year.  Moreover, the State Department’s Iran Democracy Fund will be shut down.  A Wall Street Journal’s Op-ed by David Feith and Bari Weiss provides more detail on funding received by these groups:

  • The Connecticut-based Iran Human Rights Documentation is a nonpartisan group that documents Iran’s human-rights abuses. The group had previously received $3 million over the past five years.  It will shut down in May, said Executive Director Renee Redman, unless private donors save it.
  • Freedom House is a nonpartisan watchdog group founded in 1941 that applied in April for significant funds to support initiatives including Gozaar, its Farsi-English online journal of democracy and human rights, and was turned down in July.  Since 2006, Freedom House had received over $2 million from the U.S. and European governments for Iran-related efforts.  “We might have to close Gozaar if we run out of money,” deputy executive director Thomas O. Melia stated.
  • The International Republican Institute (IRI) had received State Department support to train Iranian reformers and connect them to like-minded activists in Europe and elsewhere.  IRI’s recent application for funds was denied, an IRI official told us last week.
  • The Bush administration had requested $65 million for the State Department’s Iran Democracy Fund in fiscal year 2009.  But Congress and the Obama administration have replaced it with a Near East Regional Democracy Fund, whose mission is not specified in law and therefore, can be used in any Near Eastern country.

The Op-ed goes on to impugn Obama administration’s decision to cut off the funding.  But before we jump to the conclusion that Obama does not care about Iranians, lets examine the facts more carefully.  There is a reason why many prominent Iranians, Iranian-Americans, and non-Iranians who support the reformists, are happy with the Obama administration’s decision to cut down the funding.

The Iranian democracy fund was initiated by the Bush administration in an effort to topple the clerical regime in Tehran by financing Iranian NGOs. But the fund only hindered the actions of Iranian NGOs as they were now accused of working to overthrow the government with the help of the United States. A BBC’s article had an example of how the U.S. funding placed additional risks on Iranian activists:

Human rights defenders in Iran, however, point to the Iranian Human Rights Documentation Center’s activities as an example of exactly why the fund should be cut.

In 2005, the centre organised a seminar in Dubai. Though it was advertised as a human rights seminar, participants tell the BBC that they soon realised that the aim was to train Iranian human rights defenders on how to overthrow the Iranian regime through non-violent means.

Several of the participants were subsequently arrested and jailed in Iran.

Today, they bitterly complain that the Human Rights Documentation Center knowingly put them under immense risk by luring them to Dubai – a hub for Iranian intelligence services – under false pretences.

The episode is believed to have focused the attention of the Iranian regime on NGOs and political activists. The authorities began to regard them a as a potential national security threat, prompting a severe crackdown on Iranian civil society.

In the Daily Beast, Reza Aslan, a prominent Iranian-American writer, apprises the readers on the people supporting Obama’s decision:

  • Ianian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi is among those who have praised the move.  Her spoke-person told BBC reporters: “These U.S. funds are going to people who have very little to do with the real struggle for democracy in Iran and our civil society activists never received such funds. The end to this program will have no impact on our activities whatsoever.”
  • Similarly, Akbar Ganji, Iran’s most famous political dissident, has stated that the Iran Democracy Fund is “severely counterproductive,” and “none of the human-rights activists and members of the opposition in Iran had any interest in using such funds.” Ganji pointed out that the funds were counterproductive as even though Iran’s homegrown democracy activists refuse to go anywhere near the money-because the U.S. government will not release information about who actually receives the funds-the Iranian government simply assumes that any nongovernmental organization working for human rights in Iran must be in league with the U.S. government. This greatly damaged the democracy movement in Iran.

Reza Aslan also defends Obama’s decision to cut off the funding and argues that Obama’s current approach of engaging Iran is much more effective than the funding previously received under the Bush administration:

The fact remains that there is simply no way for the United States to promote democracy in Iran except through dialogue and diplomacy with its reviled regime-not through more meaningless and thus far totally ineffective sanctions, not through empty threats of military actions, and certainly not through sexy music videos.

It is quite simple, really. The only way to punish a country for its bad behavior is first to have some kind of relationship with it. That is precisely what Obama is trying to do. By working toward the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Iran, Obama is laying the groundwork for real, meaningful, and lasting reform in Iran.

So on behalf of most, not all, young Iranians struggling for change in Iran, I say, keep your measly $85 million, America (chump change as far as covert propaganda operations go).



Sahar Zubairy

Sahar Zubairy recently graduated from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas- Austin with Masters in Global Policy Studies. She graduated from Texas A&M University with Phi Beta Kappa honors in May 2006 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics. In Summer 2008, she was the Southwest Asia/Gulf Intern at the Henry L. Stimson Center, where she researched Iran and the Persian Gulf. She was also a member of a research team that helped develop a website investigating the possible effects of closure of the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf by Iran.