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Activists Fear U.S. "Help" Could Spur Crackdown

Published on Tuesday, May 9, 2006 by Inter Press Service
by Omid Memarian

BERKELEY, California - The United States is struggling with Iran's fundamentalist government on two fronts -- while U.S. diplomats are negotiating with other members of the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions on Tehran, Washington has allocated 75 million dollars to inspire "regime change".

The money is to be spent on empowering civil society, providing supplemental requests, broadcasting into Iran, promoting democracy, offering scholarships and fellowships, and enhancing communication.

But Iranian civil society activists who asked to remain unidentified told IPS they believe this policy will just intensify the Islamic republic's repressive approach toward non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and will be used as an excuse to crack down on their activities.

Just last week, agents from Iran's intelligence agency arrested Ramin Jahanbegloo, a prominent scholar, at Tehran's airport. "He had relations with foreigners," said Intelligence Minister Moseni Ejeyee.

Fars news agency, which is closely connected to the country's security forces, asserted later that Jahanbegloo was recruited by the U.S. government in 2001, while he was a researcher for the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

Under the new U.S. State Department funding, the NED would be in charge of working with Iranian NGOs. Jahanbegloo's arrest serves as a worrisome harbinger of a new wave of intimidation against Iranian civil society, professionals, and intellectuals who simply have connections outside Iran.

Iran's new government perceives civil society groups as a tool for Washington to bring about a non-violent "colour revolution", similar to those which occurred in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004. Consequently, the government has used many different strategies to control NGOs, by increasing the risks of accepting any foreign funding, and inspiring fear among civil society activists to derail any serious changes inside the country.

Just a few weeks before the State Department announcement that it was stepping up its democracy promotion efforts, Iran's interior minister declared that the government has been preparing a long list of NGOs that are pursuing regime change.

"They are supported by foreign countries and international organisations," said an Interior Ministry spokesman. "They have a comprehensive plan to strictly control these NGOs."

Since this hard-line approach was adopted at the start of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's presidency last August, the government has stopped supporting NGOs and charities that received funding from Mohammad Khatami's reformist government (1997-2005), totaling more than a million dollars in 2003.

The Ahmadinejad administration has also asked many NGOs to return their low-rent offices, which were donated by municipalities and other governmental bodies. While Ahmadinejad was Tehran's mayor, he terminated many of the mutual contracts with new NGOs that were mostly established during the reform period of Khatami's administration.

Moreover, during the last several years, some influential civil society activists have been summoned and interrogated about their activities and connections to countries outside Iran. Many were labeled by conservatives as "tools for foreigners" -- especially the United States, which has been called the "Great Satan" by Ahmadinejad's mentor, Ayatollah Khoemini. Interestingly, during the same time, governmental bodies have accelerated their support for religious organisations.

Even during Khatami's two terms, modern and progressive legislation to regulate NGOs' activities was turned into a restrictive bylaw for some intelligence service members among the ministers.

According to one of the law's articles, for an NGO to obtain any funding from foreign entities, three ministries must approve it: the Ministry of Intelligence, Ministry of the Interior, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. NGOs have to send any proposals and information to these departments and wait for three months to receive an answer. Obviously, it is impossible to get funds while all three of these bodies are under the conservatives' control.

Iranian officials also fear that U.S. aid will be funneled through European charities that have offices in Tehran. As a result, foundations from Germany, Holland, Denmark, Switzerland and others, which have contracts with some local NGOs, are increasingly facing strict governmental monitoring.

"Foreign countries use NGOs as a cover for espionage among Iranian society," objected Saeed Abutalib, an Iranian conservative MP, citing community development projects by the oil giant Shell in central Iran.

In recent years, two European organisations closed their offices because they did not acknowledge governmental orders, including the British-based Ockenden International.

In 2004, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation's Middle East director traveled to Tehran and met with conservatives, who rejected his plan to open an office in Tehran.

"There are various tendencies in (Iran). During my stay here, I have met with representatives of the most ultra-right and the most ultra-left factions... The role of Islam in this country is very prominent," Andrea Gerber said in an interview. "The complicated social structure in Iran compels us to start our activities with caution."

Over the last few months, the Ministry of Interior and Tehran's Office of the Prosecutor General have summoned many NGO members to give explanations about their activities, financial resources, and even their contacts with foreign institutes. They are obliged to send regular reports on their meetings and connections with foreigners.

Given the conservatives' paranoia about a Western cultural invasion, Washington's statement of support for NGOs and civil society activities has made it very hard for local NGOs to maintain their relationships with foreign entities. Some of them have canceled their projects in order to avoid being negatively affected by officials' conspiracy-oriented mindset.

Writing in the popular Roozonline, Ahmad Zeidabadi, a prominent Iranian journalist, notes that even "during the period when the U.S. was not providing any financial support to opposition groups inside Iran, powerful and influential Iranian officials unheedingly charged that Iranian reformers were receiving 'bags of U.S. dollars' from the United States."

"Political activists and journalists were pressured in prisons to 'confess' about the receipt of such monies. Now that the U.S. government is openly talking about providing money to Iranian dissidents and opposition groups, these officials can openly and blatantly make accusations against any critical voice of being supported and financed by the U.S. government, thus making it even easier for the government to suppress them with little resistance or concern."

The arrest of Dr. Jahanbeglou is a serious wake-up call for academic and civil society activists. Everybody within the country understands that arresting high-profile academic figures is intended to inspire fear among civil society activists and academics not to have any connections with foreigners or their resources.

The conservative body of the Islamic regime has used similar tactics with journalists and Internet bloggers. Human rights activists in Iran believe that Dr. Jahanbeglou's detention could be the start of a renewed campaign to suppress the secular part of civil society and modern NGOs, which are well-connected to the outside world.
Copyright © 2006 IPS-Inter Press Service



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