Iranian Civil Society and the Role of U.S. Foreign Policy

Iranian Civil Society and the Role of U.S. Foreign Policy

The arrests of four Iranian-Americans have created a chill among those in Iran working to open up civil society and led to disagreements over U.S. support for those efforts.

Last updated July 16, 2007 8:00 am (EST)

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Iran enjoys one of the region’s most robust civil societies, partly as a result of the brief openness that blossomed during the tenure of reformist President Mohammed Khatami (1999-2005). Yet his hard-line successor, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has rolled back those reforms, as evidenced by the recent arrests of four Iranian-American scholars and journalists on dubious charges of espionage and plotting to carry out a “velvet revolution” in Iran. His regime has curtailed academic and cultural exchanges and stifled the independent media. Some say the policy of the U.S. State Department to publicly support Iranian civil society organizations has only served to undermine the activities of these groups by opening them to charges of disloyalty, thus endangering activists in Iran.

What is the status of civil society in Iran today?

Iran’s civic activism ranges from the work of independent labor unions to women’s rights groups to environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). “It’s not a minor part of the society,” says Laura Secor, an editor at the New York Times who has covered Iranian political activism. By Middle East standards, Iran’s civil society is highly developed. “Because of the reform movement in Iran, civil society plays a more active role than its counterparts in the Arab world,” says Hadi Ghaemi, an Iran expert at Human Rights Watch, “but it is definitely under more pressure at the moment than any other country in the region.” Experts estimate between five thousand and eight thousand NGOs are active in Iran. They include Islamist charities as well as secular organizations, local groups as well as internationally known organizations.

How has civil society evolved in Iran?

Iranian civil society’s heyday was the late 1990s and early years of this century under former President Khatami, whose government provided subsidies to help develop an NGO sector but failed to put in place safeguards to prevent its dismantlement. “Under Khatami, civil society really went through a renaissance,” says Secor. Ghaemi calls its development “one of the most valuable outcomes of the reform movement” of the former president. Academic and cultural exchanges with Western NGOs and research organizations were common. But after Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, he refused to renew many of these groups’ licenses and his intelligence ministry had several NGOs shut down. Instead of jailing independent journalists using the judiciary system, as hard-line elements within the Khatami regime were wont to do, Ahmadinejad targeted bloggers and civil society groups. Mostly he has sought to prevent Iranian NGOs from networking together too closely or from corresponding with foreigners. “There’s this paranoia,” Ghaemi says. “The regime thinks any kind of network of NGO activity will lead to collective action that would usher in a ’velvet revolution’.”

What effect has this government pressure had on Iranian activists?

Government restrictions increasingly limit Iranian activists and academics from traveling overseas. Those who do attend conferences abroad fear they will be targeted by Iranian intelligence upon their return. Afshin Molavi, a fellow at the New America Foundation, says Iranians reached by phone now clam up for fear of drawing suspicions from the authorities, even those who work in nonpolitical activities like public health or environment feasibility studies. The number of track-two meetings has decreased under the Ahmadinejad regime, experts say. And the arrests and detentions of four Iranian-Americans, including Haleh Esfandiari of the Woodrow Wilson Center, have led many Western scholars to cancel visits to Iran. “Each new high-profile case injects this new round of fear among scholars abroad that they will be pulled into this unjust dragnet,” says Molavi.  

What are some specific examples of this civil society clampdown?

Last March, the Iranian authorities arrested hundreds of teachers and union leaders who participated in a demonstration to protest their low pay. They have also routinely harassed women’s rights leaders active in the “One Million Signatures” campaign, begun last summer to end Iran’s discriminatory laws against women’s empowerment. Despite the clampdown, student activists continue to rally against the regime, even booing President Ahmadinejad during a December 2006 speech he gave at Tehran-based Amirkabir University of Technology and shouting chants of “Death to the Dictator.” “Civil society is still very active in Iran but I know from speaking to Iranians they have pulled back from some of the more politically sensitive topics,” says Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

How has this clampdown affected Iran’s blogosphere?

Toward the end of the Khatami era, Iran saw a surge in blogging after the government sacked a number of reformist journalists, many of whom then set up shop online. In October 2004, the Islamic Regime arrested about twenty bloggers, including Arash Sigarchi, who has spent time in jail for charges of insulting the Supreme Leader. Under Ahmadinejad, the government has continued to place restrictions against Iran’s growing cohort of independent bloggers. Restrictions include filters of popular blogs and bans on certain keywords in search engines. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, even reporting about bloggers’ arrests can result in jail time, as journalism student Mojtaba Saminejad found out. Today, many of the most influential and widely read Iranian blogs are by U.S., Canada, or Germany-based expatriates.

What explains the recent spate of arrests of Iranian-American academics?

Experts point to a number of factors. Some suspect a tit-for-tat action in response to the U.S. arrest of five Iranian operatives in northern Iraq last January. Others detect a response by a hard-line movement within the Islamic Regime to undermine discussions between U.S. and Iranian diplomats over Iraq. Others say it reflects an internal political spat between elements of Ahmadinejad’s camp and that of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who advocates a rapprochement with the West and has close ties with some of the scholars arrested. Then there are those who say the detentions are a delayed response to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s call in February 2006 to boost spending by $75 million for public diplomacy and civil society programs in Iran. But a senior State Department official, who wished not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject, disputes this theory. “Honestly these arrests would be occurring whether we were funding civil society programs in Iran or not.”  Finally, some say the recent detentions are nothing new and that Tehran has detained dual-nationals before, most notably in April 2006, when the Iranian-Canadian political philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo was arrested and released from Evin Prison after four months.   

How much contact do Iranian activists have with civil society groups abroad?

Increasingly Iranian intelligence agents curtail their contacts, citing suspected ties to U.S. groups and also organizations like the Soros foundations and other Europe-based NGOs. Of late, Iranian activists tend to avoid associating with U.S.-based NGOs for fear they may arouse suspicions of being on the U.S. government’s bankroll. “Iranians who consort with Americans are made much more vulnerable by this explicit desire to fund programs aimed at regime change [in Iran],” says Coleman. “It doesn’t matter if they haven’t touched it [U.S. State Department funds]. They’re guilty by association.” Coleman favors more people-to-people exchanges and greater civil society interactions with Iran but recognizes the difficulties at the current time in light of the recent arrests.

What is the current U.S. policy regarding civil society in Iran?

Last year Congress approved $66 million of Secretary Rice’s $85 million request aimed at promoting civil society in Iran, which includes funding for cultural and academic exchanges, public diplomacy efforts, and broadcast programs like Voice of America and Radio Farda. The portion of this money allocated to civil society groups—roughly $30 million—reaches Iranian activists indirectly through undisclosed third-party channels like U.S.- or Europe-based NGOs and exile groups. “We know the more we talk about it the more the Iranian government uses it as a witch hunt to detain these people [who receive U.S. funds],” says the senior State Department official. He says the money is not aimed at groups bent on overthrowing the current regime but rather on groups with a “broad spectrum of agendas and philosophies,” adding that the focus is “on how the government of Iran can more fully reflect the opinion of Iranians.”The number of Iranian NGOs that receive U.S. funds is in the tens, not the hundreds or thousands (though some experts deny that any Iranian NGO has received U.S. funds). The money requested specifically for civil society will increase from $30 million to $75 million next year.

Why is the State Department’s policy so controversial?

Experts say the allocation of U.S. funds toward civil society taints those Iranian activists and academics who receive them because of the source: the U.S. government. “It puts a target on the backs of many of these groups and independent academic researchers and creates complications for those in Iran who are advocating for greater openness,” says the New America Foundation’s Molavi. “It takes away the idea that this is truly people-to-people,” says Trita Parsi, director of the National Iranian American Council. “I think exchanges are a great idea, but if you add that these are part of an effort to promote democracy, which Iran reads as regime change, then you’re shooting yourself in the foot.” Ghaemi of Human Rights Watch says the State Department’s lack of transparency regarding which groups receive funds—for obvious reasons to ensure the aid recipients’ safety—allows the “Iranian intelligence ministry to say any NGO with any interaction with the outside world could be a pawn of U.S. state policy and used as a weapon to justify persecution and prosecution of activists in Iran.”

What alternative solutions do these critics propose to bolster civil society?

While most experts support contacts and exchanges between Westerners and Iranians, they want to minimize the role of government. For instance, Parsi suggests lifting U.S. sanctions that bar private Americans or businesses from donating to Iranian causes or civil society groups. Secor says the U.S. government should “take its cues from those Iranians who have been risking their lives for the past twenty years and have more experience than we do [in civil society promotion].” Others say greater dialogue between the U.S. and Iranian governments would create a better environment to address civil society concerns and allow for more people-to-people exchanges. “Having some kind of diplomatic relations is useful,” says CFR’s Coleman. “By refusing to talk to each other, we can’t begin to understand what the nuances of their internal positions are and how we might be able to influence things.”

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