VI. Exploiting Heightened Iranian-US Tensions

The Iranian government has long applied the broadly conceived security laws to accuse civil society activists of collusion with foreign powers. Specifically, it has used the hostile relationship between the United States and Iran as an excuse to suppress peaceful expressions of dissent and accuse activists of receiving funds from the US government. After peaceful student demonstrations in 1999, for example, the government broadcast “confessions” of detained student leaders who claimed on television that “we have received financial assistance from America on three or four occasions to organize student movements.”163

The Ahmadinejad administration has made particular use of widely applicable charges such as “receiving funds from foreigners” to persecute civil society activists of all stripes. At the same time, US President George W. Bush has played into this strategy by opening promoting the use of US funds for “regime change” in Iran. For instance, on February 14, 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to substantially increase its existing democracy funding for Iran and announced that “the United States will actively confront the aggressive policies of the Iranian regime. At the same time, we will work to support the aspirations of the Iranian people for freedom and democracy in their country.” 164 The Iranian government in turn has used rhetoric that pairs support for democracy in Iran with an expressed desire to confront the Iranian government to accuse independent Iranian civil society activists of being the agents of foreign agendas.

Prominent Iranian activists, decrying the adverse impact on Iranian civil society, have criticized the US government’s allocation of funds. In a May 2007 opinion piece in the International Herald Tribune, Iranian Nobel laureate and human rights activist Shirin Ebadi attributed recent arrests in Iran both to the country’s internal politics and to US foreign policy:

The recent arrests, including the detention of Hossein Mousavian, a former nuclear negotiator and a close aid to former president and losing 2005 presidential candidate Akbar Hashimi Rafsanjani, should be viewed as Ahmadinejad's retaliation against the more moderate faction. But the most important reason has to do with President George W. Bush's policy toward Iran. Last year, the administration requested and received $75 million from Congress to "bring" democracy to Iran.165

Well-known human rights activist Emad Baghi and political dissident Akbar Ganji have similarly criticized US policy.166 In an open letter to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Ganji pointed out the ways that the Iranian government has exploited US funding of Iranians in order to intensify its crackdown on activists:

Exploiting the danger posed by the US, the Iranian regime has put military-security forces in charge of the government, shut down all independent domestic media, and is imprisoning human rights activists on the pretext that they are all agents of a foreign enemy. The Bush administration, for its part, by approving a fund for democracy assistance in Iran, which has in fact being (sic) largely spent on official institutions and media affiliated with the US government, had made it easy for the Iranian regime to describe its opponents as mercenaries of the US and to crush them with impunity.167

163 "Iran Threatens Revolutionary Court Trials for “Incitement,” Human Rights Watch news release, August 3, 1999,

164 “Rice Signals Shift in Iran Policy,” BBC News Online, (accessed September 19, 2007).

165 Shirin Ebadi and Muhammad Sahimi, “The Follies of Bush’s Iran Policy,” International Herald Tribune, May 30, 2007, (accessed September 23, 2007).

166 Scott Macleod, “Did the U.S. Incite Iran’s Crackdown,” Time, June 5, 2007,,8599,1629590,00.html (accessed September 23, 2007) and Akbar Ganji, “Iran’s Future: an Open Letter,” Open Democracy, September 24, 2007. (accessed September 24, 2007).

167 Akbar Ganji, “Iran’s Future: an Open Letter,” Open Democracy, September 24, 2007. (accessed September 24, 2007).