June 10, 2007

Did the U.S. Incite Iran 's Crackdown?


Time Tuesday, Jun. 05, 2007
Did the U.S. Incite Iran 's Crackdown?
By Scott Macleod/Cairo
Tehran's jailing of Haleh Esfandiari, a 67-year old grandmother who holds dual Iranian-American citizenship, as well as the interrogation of others with similar papers, is evidence that Washington's latest attempt to foist change on Iran is backfiring — as Iranian democracy advocates had warned. The Bush administration had trumpeted its $61.1 million democracy program, including Farsi-language broadcasts into Iran , education and cultural exchanges and $20 million worth of support for "civil society, human rights, democratic reform and related outreach" as an important effort. However, sources tell TIME that several key Iranian reformers had repeatedly warned U.S. officials through back channels that the pro-democracy program was bound to expose them as vulnerable targets for a government crackdown whether they took Washington's funds or not.
Iranian civil rights activists contacted by TIME say that the cases against the Iranian-Americans have fostered the most repressive atmosphere inside Iran in years, making democracy advocates terrified to work or even speak on the telephone. Many are deeply reluctant to leave or re-enter the country, fearing that they will meet the same fate as Esfandiari, who was initially detained while heading to the airport after an eight-day visit to Iran to see her 93-year old mother. She and at least two other Iranian-Americans were charged with espionage. Esfandiari is the director of the Woodrow Wilson Center 's Mideast Program in Washington . The Wilson Center has strongly denied that she or the center has received any of the Bush administration's funds.
Esfandiari has been a vocal proponent of greater dialogue between the U.S. and Iranian governments as a means of facilitating moderation in Iran and easing international tensions. "It is preposterous that she is accused of conspiring to overthrow the Iranian government by organizing conferences and encouraging dialogue between Iranians and Americans," says her husband, Shaul Bakhash, a noted Middle East scholar.
TIME's sources, who do not want to be identified for fear of retribution, say that they repeatedly warned about the negative consequences in informal talks that have been taking place for several years between figures in the U.S. and Iran who are close to their respective governments. Similar warnings were delivered to U.S. officials by others, including Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council. "We had talks with the State Department and with lawmakers," Parsi told TIME. "We pointed out the dangers. Our advice was not taken into consideration. Things have turned out worse than we expected." Parsi says that, in the past, individual democracy activists have been arrested without a pretext, but that the Bush Administration's program gave the regime an opportunity to go after as many as 10,000 non-government organizations and their memberships. "There is tremendous self-censorship going on," Parsi says. "They know that the money has made them targets." Speaking to TIME, a State Department official explained that because "dictatorships do react against any kind of rule-of-law, or democracy-promoting programs," the U.S. does not make public the names of recipients of program funds, although recipients are aware that the money is coming from the U.S.
The pro-democracy program is not Tehran's only sore point with the U.S. Apart from the ongoing nuclear controversy, Iran is angry over the continuing detention of five of its diplomats, arrested during a U.S. raid in Iraq in January. There was some speculation that the arrest and interrogation of Esfandiari and other Iranian-Americans may be an attempt to set up a "hostage exchange" — the U.S. citizens in return for the Iranian diplomats. Others speculate that Iranian hard-liners may have instigated the Iranian-American arrests as a means of creating a new diplomatic crisis with the West and thus torpedoing pragmatists in the Iranian government who favor better relations with Washington .
Nevertheless, for the last several months, Iranian officials have publicly charged that the U.S. money is pushing for a "velvet revolution" in Iran . Iranian officials seem to believe that Esfandiari's center is a conduit for the U.S. effort. In interrogations of Esfandiari lasting as long as eight hours, the questions focused almost entirely on her activities at the Wilson Center . The other Iranian-Americans on espionage charges are: Kiam Tajbakhsh, of the Open Society Institute, financed by the American billionaire George Soros, who was working with Iranian government ministries on urban projects; and Parnaz Azima, a journalist with Radio Farda, which is funded by the U.S. government. Azima has not been jailed. Ali Shakeri, a member of the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding at the University of California , is reported to be detained but the case against him is unclear.
Akbar Ganji and Emaddeddin Baghi, two of Iran 's most prominent pro-democracy activists, who have served long prison sentences for their activities, are among those who protested the U.S. democracy program. In a letter to international human rights organizations after Esfandiari's imprisonment, Baghi denounced the program as morally unjustifiable for effectively putting Iranian activists in harm's way.
Bush's democracy program is opposed even by some exile groups that support a tough U.S. line against the Islamic regime, including a royalist group led by Reza Pahlavi, the son of the deposed shah who seeks to reinstate the monarchy. In an e-mailed comment to TIME, Pahlavi said he "would not accept funds from any foreign governments." He said there were ways to support freedom "without such support coming in the form of governmental funds which invariably ends up hurting those it intends to help by unfairly labeling them as foreign agents."
Several mainstream Iranian reformers tell TIME that from the start they transmitted their opposition to the democracy program indirectly but clearly to American officials via the back-channel talks. Besides warning that it could trigger a crackdown, they argued that Iran 's reform movement had strong popular support and did not want or require foreign help. Outside backing has been an unusually sensitive issue in Iranian politics ever since a CIA-backed coup d'etat in 1953 installed the former Shah. Instead, many of them argue, Iran 's democracy movement would be better served if the U.S. lifted sanctions and improved relations with Tehran , which would enable trade and cultural links to be expanded. "There is no serious individual inside or outside Iran who is going to take this money," an Iranian reformer told TIME. "Anyone having the slightest knowledge of the domestic political situation in Iran would never have created this program."
The Bush administration has proposed that the program's budget be increased to more than $100 million annually. In April, before Esfandiari's case was made public, Barry Lowenkron, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, likened the program to efforts the U.S. made to undermine Communism behind the Iron Curtain. "There is always an inherent risk in this," he told reporters. "It has been there throughout the Cold War. It has been there beyond the Cold War. It's been there wherever people stand up and say I want to live in a society free from fear and free from intimidation. And so those that volunteer, those that stand up and say I want a better future for my fellow Iranians — as would be the case in any other country — they work with organizations indigenous and foreign organizations and we help."�
Asked about the warnings from Parsi and others, a State Department official told TIME that "the warnings simply never came up over the last year or so." Even if they had, the official argued, it is wrong to blame the arrests on American "democracy promotion" given that the Islamic regime is upset about U.S. policy on other fronts such as Iraq and has been detaining dissidents and activists for years. The official notes that the Iranian government has nonetheless not cut off cultural exchanges — including some being financed with the pro-democracy funding. With reporting by Adam Zagorin/Washington

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