Jun 19, 2007

Target Iran: Cuddly Info Ops & Furry Mullahs

Here's a recent Financial Times article that rather hebetudinously presents some of the information operations in the form of “pro-democracy” assets that the U.S. has deployed to rattle the cages of those pesky Mullahs de Tehran, a subject Effwit previsingly touched upon earlier here at SMC.

The survival of Iran’s fragile pro-democracy movement is being threatened by the US administration’s continuing attempts to fund the country’s civil society, leading activists have warned.

Prominent NGOs say the US funding for opposition groups, and Iranian suspicions that the money is designed to create the conditions for a “soft revolution”, have helped President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad justify a crackdown on their activities.

The recent arrests of four Iranian-American dual citizens – two on charges of espionage – have sharpened what was already a fierce debate in Tehran and Washington on whether the lack of transparency in identifying the recipients of US funding makes local activists vulnerable to action by the regime.

After hesitant progress during the eight years of reformist President Mohammad Khatami, a third of Iran’s 8,000 or so NGOs, ranging from women’s rights groups to those campaigning on environmental and religious issues, are believed to have either completely halted or downgraded their activities since the election of Mr Ahmadi-Nejad in 2005.

“Activity for civil society has become even more costly than political activity due to US funding,” says Sohrab Razzaghi, head of Koneshgaran-e Davtalab, which trains civil society activists but was closed down by the judiciary in March without reason. “The government now sees us as the Trojan horse who function as the enemy’s fifth column.”

Although Mr Razzaghi was not accused of receiving US money, he blames the suspicion surrounding the US funding for the organisation’s closure.

The US allocated $66.1m (€50m, £34m) in 2006 to promote democracy in the Islamic republic. Most of the money was for organisations outside Iran including the Washington-based Voice of America TV but $20m was earmarked for activities inside the country. Recipients remained anonymous unless they chose to reveal the funding themselves.

Critics in Tehran and Washington, including some within the US administration, allied governments and prominent NGOs, say this secret funding is damaging Iran’s NGO movement and the few US organisations working openly with Iranians, such as the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Open Society Institute.

The husband of Haleh Esfandiari, one of those arrested on espionage charges, is among those seeking more transparency.

“There is a general agreement among Iranian intellectuals inside Iran and academics outside that the loose talk of regime change and allocation of money supposed to advance democracy in Iran has done a great deal of harm to Iranian academics, intellectuals and re-searchers,” Shaul Bakhash told the FT. “It also feeds the pa-ranoia of the Iranian regime of American intentions.”

Ms Esfandiari works for the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center.

But there is no sign the US administration will retreat. Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, made clear last month the US would not be deterred from funding pro-democracy efforts in Iran by requesting a sharp increase in spending to $75m for ­“civil society and human rights projects in Iran” in 2008.

A senior State Department official who asked not to be named dismissed the criticism and rejected such calls for transparency. The identity of recipients was kept classified for their own safety, he said.

He described the recent arrests as a new tactic aimed at the billionaire George Soros and his Open Society Institute and argued that they were part of a long-running campaign of repression of civil society that began years before the Bush administration’s democracy spending.

One insider in Washington said some officials had even welcomed the backlash from Tehran, arguing that it would clarify the divisions between the Iranian government and “opposition”. He said that Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary leading Iran policy, was a keen proponent of the funding programme, seen as another lever to use against Tehran.

Critics of the programme in Washington said the state department was under severe pressure, especially from Congress to spend money and that projects were approved without proper vetting and oversight.

Asked if the funding added up to an attempt at “soft revolution”, as claimed by the Iranian government, a senior State Department official replied that the US was supporting Iranians who wanted to decide the course of their country’s future. The policy was in line with President George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda”, he said.

“This US interference can lead to the death of civil society at a young age” said Mr Razzaghi. “The US should let societies like Iran practice democracy themselves. This may take longer but it will last longer.”

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