Friday, January 20, 2006

U.S. quietly pushes democracy projects in Iran

Sue Pleming, Reuters:
U.S. public policy on Iran focuses on blocking it from building a nuclear bomb, but the State Department is also spending millions of dollars on grant programs in the country in an effort to boost democracy.

Over the past two years, the State Department has doled out about $4 million in grants to promote democracy in Iran and has about $10 million earmarked this year for the same purpose.

"What we are aiming to achieve is trying to first of all support those inside of Iran who want for their own country greater freedom of expression, greater participation, greater rights for women, broader freedom of the press," said Erica Barks-Ruggles of the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, which handles the grants.

Barks-Ruggles said the U.S. goal was not to overthrow the Iranian government via these grants, as Tehran has suggested, but to support those who "already have their eyes open". READ MORE

"Clearly $4 million is not going to do that (overthrow the government)," she said in an interview with Reuters. "What we are trying to do is to help support those who want to see the type of government, the type of society they deserve."

Iranian officials have in the past reacted angrily to the grant program, calling it a violation of the Algiers Accord between the two countries under which the United States agreed not to intervene in Iran's internal affairs.

Barks-Ruggles declined for security reasons to provide details on who was getting the funds but said it was not exiled groups as was the case when Washington supported Iraqi exiled groups before the March 2003 invasion.

One Iran analyst, who asked not to be named, said some funds were used, for example, to provide democracy training for Iranians who traveled to countries such as Turkey and Romania.

Separate from the grants, the State Department is also trying to get the U.S. message across via a U.S.-funded Farsi language radio network called Radio Farda. In addition, Voice of America also has a Farsi service.


Spreading "democracy and freedom", particularly in Muslim countries, is a focus of the Bush administration. The program has come under criticism by some for being a crude attempt to impose U.S. political beliefs on others.

However, Barks-Ruggles disagreed and said the State Department was not pushing any particular kind of democracy, whether it be U.S., British or French.

"What we are about is trying to support and defend those who are seeking freedom and justice and democracy in their own country," she said.

The money appropriated for these grants was the first public funding by Washington of Iranian groups since the 1979 Islamic revolution that led to an end of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Because of sanctions against Iran, the State Department has to move carefully over which groups it can support and U.S. funds cannot be used to sponsor any activities involving the government of Iran.

Michael Rubin, an Iran expert with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, said the U.S. government should be doing a lot more to support democracy in Iran, saying it budgeted more for landscaping at Washington's Kennedy Center than for Iran democracy work.

He said a budget of about $50 million a year was a more realistic target but it would not be helpful to sponsor Iranian exiled groups as was the case in Iraq.