Accessibility links

Breaking News

US Launches Democracy Building Program in Iran

There have been no formal diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran for decades, and not much interaction among the people of the two countries. But as VOA's Cathryn Curtis reports, the Bush administration is reaching out to Iranians in a new but controversial way.

The war of words escalates between the U.S. and Iran:

"We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon,” declared Vice President Dick Cheney recently.

"If the United States wishes to choose that path, let the ball roll," replied Javad Vaeidi, Deputy Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Council.

Amid the rising bilateral tensions, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently explained to the U.S. Congress what the Bush administration is doing to reach out to the Iranian people.

"We have also proposed that we would be able to support non-governmental organizations that can function in Iran, and in many ways, most importantly, to improve and increase our educational and cultural outreach to the people of Iran," said the secretary.

It is part of what the Bush administration calls "democracy building". The State Department is asking for 15 million additional dollars to support Iranian civic groups and non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, this year.

The news has been welcomed by many who work for American NGOs.

"It's positive because it is important to engage Iran," says Zahir Janmohamed, who directs the human rights programs in the Middle East for Amnesty International. He warns that Iran is a particularly tricky place for American groups to work.

"In Iran there's already a climate in which people who are expressing dissent or expressing opinions other than the government’s, the Iranian government line, are already vulnerable groups."

He says the American money filtering into Iran could put Iranian lives at risk.

"What I'm concerned about is U.S. government money creating a climate of suspicion in which, you know, the government has been known to execute people for what they deem as betrayal, what they deem as conspiring with outside sources," he told us.

"If the United States is seen as supporting particular individuals or particular groups, especially at this time, that could place these individuals and these organizations and these individuals further at risk," adds John Calabrese, with the Middle East Institute, a research group based in Washington, D.C. He believes more U.S. contact with Iranians is generally a good idea.

"It's healthy and it's essential for there to be multiple, sustained channels of cultural interaction. Those bridges are indispensable. If they don't bear fruit now, they will bear fruit later."

For the U.S. government, the bridges are intended to bypass the Iranian government, which it is seeking to isolate.

"There is nothing more important that we not isolate the Iranian people, and these programs are, in many ways, critical to not isolating the Iranian people," said Secretary Rice.

The State Department is already accepting applications from NGOs and individuals interested in obtaining U.S. funds to work with the Iranian people.

That could include factions from the Iranian exile community, which is deeply divided.

Calabrese worries that if Iranians think the program is being driven by one faction, they could be reluctant to accept U.S. help, and Iran's government could benefit.

"Not only will they be more cautious than they otherwise would, with good reason, but that will be seized and exploited by the regime and its supporters to taint everything that we do."

The democracy-building program is just one part of a larger effort by the U.S. to communicate with Iranians. The State Department is also creating a new bureau for Iran in its Washington headquarters, and plans to increase television broadcasts to the region as well.