With Iran’s hardliners consolidating their victory over the reformist opposition with continuing arrests and raids on the offices of leading critics, the lack of support for the country’s beleaguered democrats and civil society is under fire.
Security services are strategically targeting key activists and leaders, reports suggest, clamping down on dissent ahead of the officially orchestrated Quds Day demonstrations against Israel which the authorities fear could turn into anti-regime protests.
“In a more immediate sense, they are shutting sources of information about prison abuse,” said Payam Akhavan, a founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. “But it is also a sign that they want to move to the next stage to solidify their power by arresting opposition leaders.”
With Russia and China apparently set to oppose stringer sanctions against Tehran, attention is shifting to assessing prospects for a ground-up approach to pressurizing or changing the regime, based on “soft power” tactics and citizen mobilization:
Advocates say this could be done through mass disinvestment campaigns, similar to those waged against apartheid-era South Africa, through stepped-up support for “ordinary” Iranians, women’s groups, students and trade unionists, and by applying pressure through and on international institutions and businesses.
But efforts to support Iranian democrats and civil society have been fitful and limited, observers suggest. The controversial Iran Democracy Fund, for instance, has been hampered by internecine conflict within government agencies, resulting in “watered-down programs and raw feelings”, but precious little active support for Iranian civil society, according to a new report from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The fund has been “extremely cautious in its funding decisions,” writes J. Scott Carpenter. Recently renamed the Near East Regional Democracy Fund (unfortunate acronym), the initiative should be “retooled to aggressively support those inside Iran who are struggling to change their government,” he concludes:
For those who believe supporting democracy and human rights in Iran remains the best option to either a failed engagement strategy or military action, one alternative to funding NERD would be to appropriate more money directly to the National Endowment for Democracy or to organizations such as the National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute, and Freedom House. Not only do these organizations have broad experience and clear historical missions in supporting democrats and human rights activists, they are mercifully free of government indecision and handwringing.