• 20 October 2009
  • Posted By David Elliott
  • Human Rights in Iran

The real story on the Iran “democracy fund”

The BBC has taken a fresh look at a story the Boston Globe first ran a couple weeks ago about the demise of the Iran “Democracy Fund,” a program started under the Bush administration to support regime change in Iran.

The story provoked an outcry. Individuals such as Senator Joseph Lieberman and the neoconservative activist Michael Rubin blasted the administration for the cuts. Since then, the Wall Street Journal has called it “preemptive appeasement.” Other news organizations, like Fox News and Haraatz, breathlessly retold the story of the United States turning its back on democracy in Iran.

But the story isn’t so simple, as the BBC reveals:

“While the move has been criticised by neo-conservatives in the US, it has been welcomed by Iranian human rights and pro-democracy activists.”

The BBC cites several people, including Abdolfattah Soltani, spokesman for the Defenders of Human Rights Center (Shirin Ebadi’s organization) and a human rights lawyer.

He welcomes the change in policy: “These US funds are going to people who have very little to do with the real struggle for democracy in Iran and our civil society activists never received such funds. The end to this program will have no impact on our activities whatsoever.”

The Globe and subsequent stories focused on seemingly unjustifiable cuts in funding. But many of these articles didn’t talk to human rights defenders in Iran, nor did it scrutinize how the money given to groups in the US actually had affected those inside the country. The story from the people on the inside is quite different: they don’t welcome measures that puts them under additional risk. Thanks to the BBC report, we know that the people putting their necks on the line to defend human rights in Iran apparently did not see the move to cut this fund as US abandonment of democracy in Iran.

Kudos to the BBC on this for digging deeper into this story and actually talking to the people most affected by these policies.

Posted By David Elliott

David Elliott is the Assistant Policy Director at the National Iranian American Council.

    2 Responses to “The real story on the Iran “democracy fund””

  1. Hi,

    I wondered whether you had seen this posting by Michael Rubin at the National Review’s blog: the corner?

    “Tuesday, October 20, 2009

    Iran’s Democracy Fund: Doesn’t the BBC Fact Check? [Michael Rubin]

    Bahman Kalbasi does a hit-piece on the Iran Democracy Fund for the BBC. The Obama administration killed programs supported by the fund without explanation, including the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, an apolitical human-rights group that studiously avoids partisan politics. The timing of Obama’s cut-off is tragic since the group was compiling the names of those detained in this summer’s post-election violence in Iran.

    Kalbasi appears at best negligent and at worst dishonest. A few problems:

    (1) He links the Center to a program in Dubai in 2005, but the Iran Democracy Fund didn’t fund the 2005 conference and, indeed, the fund hadn’t yet been created.

    (2) Kalbasi fails to differentiate between supporters of the Islamic Republic and those seeking democracy. Reform and democracy are not the same thing.

    (3) There tends to be a wide divergence between what democracy activists will say inside an authoritarian regime and outside it, as well as publicly and privately.

    (4) Kalbasi accepts the argument that support for civil society creates an excuse for the regime to tar opponents but the regime targeted democrats and dissidents long before 2006. Indeed, the regime has arrested Iranians who attended conferences in Berlin in the late 1990s.

    (5) The regime now targets those who engage in any dialogue with Western scholars. By the same logic, does Kalbasi and the BBC believe that civil society activists should cease all dialogue in order to stop offending Islamic Republic hardliners?

    10/20 05:30 PM”

    Please note that I am in the middle of correspondence with Mr Rubin about this, and once concluded will be posting it to my blog.

  2. Artin says:

    I would post this to Mr. Rubin’s own website, but The Corner does not allow comments.

    His “point” #1 here is patently false. The Human Rights Center DID exist, and it DID organize the conference. Read the NYT piece below:


    [Ramin] Ahmadi and a group of partners were among the earlier recipients of State Department democracy financing, securing initial grants of $1.6 million in 2004 to start the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center…In early 2005, [Ahmadi] brought the board a proposal to hold a human rights workshop in Dubai. (He had been running his own, privately financed workshops for Iranians for several years.) Some board members, including Reza Afshari, a professor of history at Pace University, worried about taking Iranians out of the country for such an event. ”We had two primary concerns: Are we capable of providing solid training? And what of the safety of those concerned?” Afshari told me. Ahmadi was persuasive, according to Afshari and former employees of the center, assuring his colleagues that every step would be taken to ensure that the participants’ identities would be protected. The board reluctantly agreed, and the workshops went on, scheduled for April and May 2005.

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Dear Mr. Page:

It has come to our attention that Google has begun omitting the title of the Persian Gulf from its Google Maps application. This is a disconcerting development given the undisputed historic and geographic precedent of the name Persian Gulf, and the more recent history of opening up the name to political, ethnic, and territorial disputes. However unintentionally, in adopting this practice, Google is participating in a dangerous effort to foment tensions and ethnic divisions in the Middle East by politicizing the region’s geographic nomenclature. Members of the Iranian-American community are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts, particularly at a time when regional tensions already have been pushed to the brink and threaten to spill over into conflict. As the largest grassroots organization in the Iranian-American community, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) calls on Google to not allow its products to become propaganda tools and to immediately reinstate the historically accurate, apolitical title of “Persian Gulf” in all of its informational products, including Google Maps.

Historically, the name “Persian Gulf” is undisputed. The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy referencing in his writings the “Aquarius Persico.” The Romans referred to the "Mare Persicum." The Arabs historically call the body of water, "Bahr al-Farsia." The legal precedent of this nomenclature is also indisputable, with both the United Nations and the United States Board of Geographic Names confirming the sole legitimacy of the term “Persian Gulf.” Agreement on this matter has also been codified by the signatures of all six bordering Arab countries on United Nations directives declaring this body of water to be the Persian Gulf.

But in the past century, and particularly at times of escalating tensions, there have been efforts to exploit the name of the Persian Gulf as a political tool to foment ethnic division. From colonial interests to Arab interests to Iranian interests, the opening of debate regarding the name of the Persian Gulf has been a recent phenomenon that has been exploited for political gain by all sides. Google should not enable these politicized efforts.

In the 1930s, British adviser to Bahrain Sir Charles Belgrave proposed to rename the Persian Gulf, “Arabian Gulf,” a proposal that was rejected by the British Colonial and Foreign offices. Two decades later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company resurrected the term during its dispute with Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister whose battle with British oil interests would end in a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état that continues to haunt U.S.-Iran relations. In the 1960s, the title “Arabian Gulf” became central to propaganda efforts during the Pan-Arabism era aimed at exploiting ethnic divisions in the region to unite Arabs against non-Arabs, namely Iranians and Israelis. The term was later employed by Saddam Hussein to justify his aims at territorial expansion. Osama Bin Laden even adopted the phrase in an attempt to rally Arab populations by emphasizing ethnic rivalries in the Middle East.

We have serious concerns that Google is now playing into these efforts of geographic politicization. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Google has stirred controversy on this topic. In 2008, Google Earth began including the term “Arabian Gulf” in addition to Persian Gulf as the name for the body of water. NIAC and others called on you then to stop using this ethnically divisive propaganda term, but to no avail. Instead of following the example of organizations like the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 used term “Arabian Gulf” in its maps but recognized the error and corrected it, Google has apparently decided to allow its informational products to become politicized.

Google should rectify this situation and immediately include the proper name for the Persian Gulf in Google Maps and all of its informational products. The exclusion of the title of the Persian Gulf diminishes your applications as informational tools, and raises questions about the integrity and accuracy of information provided by Google.

We strongly urge you to stay true to Google’s mission – “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – without distorting or politicizing that information. We look forward to an explanation from you regarding the recent removal of the Persian Gulf name from Google Maps and call on you to immediately correct this mistake.



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