By: Kenneth R. Timmerman
The Obama administration has cut funding for pro-democracy and human rights programs in Iran, reversing years of efforts during the Bush administration to help develop a civil society, congressional sources told Newsmax this week.
The move is apparently intended to please Iran’s rulers after they criticized President Obama and the State Department for allegedly seeking to fund a “velvet revolution” during the June presidential elections in Iran.
“It sounds like the Iranians complained in Geneva and we acceded to their demands,” a former senior government official familiar with the pro-democracy programs told Newsmax.
Word that the administration was planning to cut the pro-democracy programs leaked out in June, when the draft budget for the State Department sent to Congress zeroed out the funds.
The aid cut-back became public last week, when the executive director of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, which is affiliated with Yale University campus in New Haven, Conn., disclosed that her center’s request for a grant of $2.7 million had been denied.
“If there is one time that I expected to get funding, this was it,’’ Renee Redman told the Boston Globe last week. “I was surprised, because the world was watching human rights violations right there on television.”
Redman’s center has received $3 million under the State Department program, and has issued reports on human rights abuses. However, they were not active inside Iran and had no programs to support the pro-democracy movement itself, as such activities were considered “too provocative” by the State Department even under President George W. Bush.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who co-sponsored legislation earlier this year that greatly expands pro-democracy funding, questioned the wisdom of the Obama administration’s policy shift.
“It is disturbing that the State Department would cut off funding at precisely the moment when these brave investigations are needed most,” he said last week.
Lieberman’s bill, called the Victims of Iranian Censorship (VOICE) act, passed the Senate in July and has been incorporated into the annual defense appropriations bill, which is scheduled for a final vote this week.
The legislation expands funding for Farsi-language broadcasts by the Voice of America and Radio Farda and authorizes the State Department to spend up to $20 million to develop new technologies to help Iranians get around Internet censorship, and another $5 million for human rights documentation.
Congress continues to fund the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which last year handed out $450,000 to three Iranian-American organizations for media and Internet-related projects. But compared to the $75 million fund set up by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — now frozen by the Obama administration — the NED money is just a drop in the bucket.
“The State Department cut in pro-democracy funding for Iran is part and parcel of a very deliberate policy by President Obama to diminish the role of human rights and democracy as goals of U.S. foreign policy,” said Joshua Muravchik, a scholar focusing on democracy promotion with the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
“This is taking us back to a Nixonian approach to foreign policy, with the incompetence of Carter and the national self-effacement of George McGovern,” he told Newsmax.
President Nixon set aside democracy and human rights to deal with dictatorships such as Communist China and Soviet Russia, based on U.S. national interests. “The Obama administration has combined realism with policies that put the national interest quite low” on the scale of priorities, Muravchik said.
The Iran democracy programs have been shrouded in secrecy, even though they are not classified. David Denehy, a former program manager at the State Department, said he had agreed not to disclose specific grantees or projects, to protect participants who were working inside Iran.
“We did good things with Internet freedom, civil society organizations, and in helping to better inform the Iranian people and better connect them to the outside world,” he told Newsmax. “I don’t see why President Obama wouldn’t support these things. The United States philosophically should always stand on the side of freedom against tyranny.”
The Iranian regime has accused the United States of backing presidential candidate Mir Hossein Moussavi before and after the disputed June 12 presidential elections.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unexpectedly poured fuel onto those suspicions. In an Aug. 9 interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, she said that the Obama administration was torn between their desire to engage the regime and their sympathy for the protesters.
“And we knew that, if we stepped in too soon, too hard, the attention might very well shift and the leadership would try to use us to unify the country against the protesters. And that was — it was a hard judgment call. But I think we, in retrospect, handled it pretty well.
“Now, behind the scenes, we were doing a lot, as you know,” Clinton added, citing specifically the actions of a young State Department employee, Jared Cohen, who intervened with the management of Twitter to prevent them from shutting down access to Iranian bloggers for technical maintenance.
Iranians close to the protesters have argued that the Obama administration turned its back on them when they most needed moral support from Washington.
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