Thursday, March 30, 2006

Bush enters debate on freedom in Iran

Guy Dinmore, The Financial Times:
Iran nuclearIn choosing Freedom House as the venue for a foreign policy address this week, President George W. Bush has stepped into an intense debate among democracy activists in the US and Iran over how US dollars should be used to carry out the administration’s policy of promoting freedom in the Islamic republic. READ MORE

Few in the Washington audience on Wednesday realised that Freedom House, an independent institution founded over 60 years ago by Eleanor Roosevelt, former first lady, is one of several organisations selected by the State Department to receive funding for clandestine activities inside Iran.

Peter Ackerman, chairman of the board of trustees, who introduced Mr Bush, is also the founder of a separate organisation that promotes non-violent, civic disobedience as a form of resistance to repressive regimes. His International Centre for Non-Violent Conflict has organised discreet “workshops” in the Gulf emirate of Dubai to teach Iranians the lessons learned from east European movements.

A separate organisation, the Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre based in New Haven, Connecticut, has also received US funding and organised a Dubai “workshop” for Iranians last year that was not made public.

Mr Ackerman, who is very wealthy from an earlier career as a financier, says he does not accept government money. Questioned by the FT, Freedom House confirmed it had received funding from the State Department for activities in Iran. It declined to give details but said it was not involved in Mr Ackerman’s work in Dubai.

Big powers fail to agree next move on Iran

Freedom House also disclosed that it received $100,000 from Mr Ackerman last year and a further $100,000 from his organisation.

In a research study, with Mr Ackerman acting as chief adviser, Freedom House sets out its conclusions: “Far more often than is generally understood, the change agent is broad-based, non-violent civic resistance – which employs tactics such as boycotts, mass protests, blockades, strikes and civil disobedience to de-legitimate authoritarian rulers and erode their sources of support, including the loyalty of their armed defenders.”

Some academics, activists and those involved in the growing US business of spreading freedom and democracy are alarmed that such semi-covert activities risk damaging the public and transparent work of other organisations, and will backfire inside Iran.

“The danger is that this is a move towards covert political warfare that will completely stymie the whole idea of democracy building. This kind of activity endangers nearly 20 years of democracy promotion,” commented Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, a UK founding governor of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.

“Getting crowds on the streets to overthrow regimes can backfire badly,” he said. He and other academics reject the notion that the east European experience can be applied to Iran.

There is concern in Europe too. Diplomats say the Bush administration’s request this year for $85m in pro-democracy funding – and its refusal to hold talks with Iran – will be seen as tantamount to a policy of “regime change”. They say this risks undermining efforts – continuing with a Berlin meeting of foreign ministers on Thursday – to resolve the crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme.

The State Department told the FT it would not disclose recipients of funding for pro-democracy activities inside Iran because lives would be placed in danger. This was also true for funding in Cuba, Iraq, Syria and other repressive regimes, an official said. Some members of Congress are informed, however. While the activities are not made public they do not amount to “covert action” which requires a specific presidential directive.

Mehrangiz Kar, a prominent Iranian lawyer and human rights activist, has issued an impassioned plea to Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state, to drop her funding plans.

The money would tarnish Iranian human rights organisations, turn them into businesses, stoke corruption and play into the hands of the security forces, she said, suggesting the US channel funds through international organisations like the United Nations and the World Bank.

Several Iranians were recently detained briefly for attending the workshops that are believed to have begun a year ago, according to friends and relatives.

Dubai is crawling with Iranian intelligence,” commented Ray Takeyh, analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations, criticising State Department plans to transform the US diplomatic mission in Dubai into a listening post on Iran.

“Every Gucci-wearing Iranian exile without a day-job is for democracy now,” he added.

Michael Ledeen, analyst at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, rejects criticism of Mr Ackerman’s efforts. Mr Ledeen told Congress that it was hard to find a revolution in history, including America’s, that did not have an outside base of support.