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Iran’s Assault on Civil Society

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
May 31, 2007


The good news is that Iranian civil society is booming. Women’s groups and labor unions, environmental organizations and students groups—even anti-land mine nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)—all ply their trade in abundance, in striking contrast to many of Iran’s Arab neighbors. As this new Backgrounder explains, the bulk of these groups took root during the reformist years of former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami.

But the hard-line regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has brought with it bad news for such groups: a new era of repressiveness, shuttering NGOs and arresting activists. The basij, the Iranian regime’s enforcers of Islamic religious codes, routinely stop women for failing to wear proper headdress, and they and other agents of the regime harass ethnic minorities, bloggers, political activists, and homosexuals, too. Iranian author Nasrin Alavi, writing in PostGlobal, likens it to a “second cultural revolution,” forcing academics with Western ties into early retirement and replacing “longstanding veterans throughout state institutions with inexperienced ideological allies.” This Backgrounder looks at Iran’s worsening human rights situation.

The latest setback for civil society was the arrests of three Iranian-Americans with close ties to Iran-based NGOs on dubious charges of espionage. Specifically, the detention of a sixty-seven-year-old academic and grandmother, Haleh Esfandiari, has set off a firestorm of criticism in the United States. Human rights groups like Reporters Without Borders have called for an end to these types of detentions. Others, including CFR Senior Fellow Ray Takeyh, decry the fact (CSMonitor) that Washington and Tehran can hold bilateral talks on Iraq while Esfandiari sits in prison.

The reasons for the arrests and clampdowns are multifold. They may reflect the weakness of the Iranian regime, which is worried that Western academics are plotting to stage a “velvet revolution.” Or it may indicate a political internal battle between Islamic hard-liners and those who favor more engagement with Washington and an end to Iran’s isolation. “There’s a small but very powerful clique within Iran, among the political elite, who actually have entrenched political and financial interests in retaining Iran’s isolation,” Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment tells’s Bernard Gwertzman. 

Others suspect an effort to stave off a U.S. foreign policy with the implicit intention, they charge, of regime change in Iran. More specifically, they cite the U.S. government’s recent push to fund Iranian civil society groups. Yet even Iranian activists are suspicious of U.S. intentions. “Iranian reformists believe that democracy can't be imported,” (IHT) write the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Iranian activist Shirin Ebadi and the University of Southern California’s Muhammad Sahimi.“It must be indigenous. They believe that the best Washington can do for democracy in Iran is to leave them alone. The fact is, no truly nationalist and democratic group will accept such funds.” In a recent Online Debate, Robert Lutwak of the Wilson Center and Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute debate whether regime change should be part of U.S. foreign policy toward Iran.

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