WASHINGTON â€” Akbar Ganji has a term for the dangers of challenging Iran’s Islamic government: “Playing with death.” Ganji is perhaps Iran’s best known political prisoner. A veteran of hunger strikes and long bouts of solitary confinement, Ganji has been imprisoned since 2001 after writing that regime allies were responsible for “serial murders” of prominent dissidents during the 1990s.
It is Iranians like Ganji and others disenchanted with the Islamic republic whom the Bush administration is trying to reach through pro-democracy Internet messages into the country and local language broadcasts. Broadcasting has been expanded significantly lately.
VOA Persian TV and Radio Farda were launched in late 2002 with a combined budget of $6.4 million. It is now up to $18.8 million, and the Bush administration is seeking $19.6 million for next year.
Separately, the US administration launched a $3 million programme in November to advance human rights and promote groups independent of Iran’s Islamic government. Additional money, perhaps even more of it, is expected to be approved by Congress this year.
Such programmes are common throughout the Middle East but officials won’t discuss details about the activities involving Iran because of the potential risk that the Iranian partners could face if found out.
One Iranian resistance group ineligible for US assistance is the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, an armed insurgency that is on the State Department’s list of international terrorist organisations. Officials accuse it of supporting the Iran hostage-taking in 1979 and of killing Americans. MEK leaders deny both charges.
Communicating with dissidents inside Iran is extraordinarily dangerous for the dissidents and difficult on both sides, and officials won’t discuss the subject.
There is no official American presence in Iran.
Public US defence of Iranian reformists can leave them open to charges that they are American lackeys, as happened during the administration of former president Bill Clinton.
The public silence about details of the US push for democracy contrasts sharply with the daily condemnations of Iran’s nuclear programme from the White House, the State Department and elsewhere.
Not surprisingly, US-Iranian mutual suspicions run deep.
The United States has been the chief protagonist internationally in calling attention to what it says is Iran’s secret plan to develop nuclear weapons, Iran denies that and says its nuclear programme is for electric power only.
For their part, the ruling mullahs in Tehran frequently remind Iranians that the United States and Britain collaborated in the ouster of an elected Iranian government in 1953.
The administration has stopped short of its “regime change” policy that led to the US military’s overthrow of President Saddam Hussein’s government in neighbouring Iraq. At the same time, it has been increasingly vocal in discussing its support for Iranian reformers.
In his State of the Union address last week, President George W. Bush said in remarks directed at Iranians: “America respects you, and we respect your country. We respect your right to choose your own future and win your own freedom. And our nation hopes one day to be the closest of friends with a free and democratic Iran.” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on January 18 that it is important for the many Iranians alienated from their government to know that they have outside support.
“The Iranian people deserve a better future and deserve an elected future,” Rice said. “Iran is simply 180 degrees out of step with the rest of the trends in the Middle East.” The United States has been financing a website since May 2003 that serves as a “virtual embassy” by providing a channel for official US statements in Farsi.
A VOA television operation tailored for Iranian viewers started in July 2003 with a modest 30 minutes a day of programming. An upgrade to four hours a day is planned by September, and the budget is up by almost half to $11 million for this year.
Kenneth Tomlinson, chairman of a board that oversees US broadcasting abroad, says TV programming into Iran “is the most important thing the VOA has done in recent years anywhere.” On the radio side, separate VOA operations for Iranian listeners broadcast four hours daily and round-the-clock.
The United States spent $1 million in 2004 to document human rights abuses inside Iran. The National Endowment for Democracy, the US government-funded group that supports democracy around the world, has allocated $500,000 or programmes in Iran.
Abdul Wahab, an endowment Iran specialist, says endowment grants teach Iranian activists how to create and manage dissident organisations and to be effective human rights advocates. The endowment helps anti-regime groups both inside and outside Iran.
Wahab said that with his organisation’s help, US-based Iranian exiles set up a website last month that identifies 10,000 Iranians alleged to have been killed by Iranian authorities since the 1979 revolution.
It identifies when where and how each was killed, and which international convention was violated in the process, he said.