NGOs Quietly Press for Access to Iran

Boston – Iran temporarily stepped out of diplomatic isolation last week with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech to the UN General Assembly. For Americans, it was a rare opportunity to hear the controversial leader in his own words.

Lending a particularly keen ear to the discourse were US-based nongovernmental organizations. They are quietly pressing to gain access to Iran to do humanitarian work they say is needed and to bridge the communication gap between Americans and Iranians.

But US sanctions are hampering their efforts, some say. Sanctions against Iran date back to 1987 and have been ratcheted up several times. The Obama administration raised them further this summer, making it more difficult, for example, for Iran to buy refined petroleum and modernize oil and gas production.

For NGOs hoping to work in Iran or with Iranians, proving to the Department of Treasury – which issues the appropriate licenses – that their work is humanitarian and won’t violate sanctions is so challenging that many NGOs give up, says Jamal Abdi, policy director of the National Iranian American Council, a US-based nonpartisan organization that handles Iranian issues. The number of US-based organizations currently in Iran is not publicly available from the Treasury.

Sometimes it takes NGOs too long to hear back about their application to do work in Iran. Sometimes the hurdles they have to clear are judged too high. Other times, they are granted a license, but for too short a period of time to make a difference, Mr. Abdi says.

Many NGOs rushed into Iran when sanctions were suspended in 2004 following a catastrophic earthquake. Many of those same NGOs had to leave before they felt their work was done, because sanctions were tightened once again, Abdi says.

Iran isn’t the first country most Americans think of as needing humanitarian assistance. That’s at least partially because so little is known about Iran and there is very little information out there about the country’s poverty level, says Ladan Judge, director of East Coast operations for Moms Against Poverty, an American NGO that works with children in poverty-stricken countries, particularly orphans. Moms Against Poverty applied for permission to work in Iran in November 2009 and is working with the Treasury on the approval process.

“[Iran] doesn’t get that humanitarian attention,” she said. “If there’s a devastation in Africa [or] Haiti, there’s news and media and attention. … Because of a lack of information that comes from there, I believe that people just don’t know.”

When sanctions prevent NGOs from doing work in other countries, an opportunity for at least some level of dialogue can be lost, says Robert Fadel, vice president for international development at One Laptop Per Child, a US-based nonprofit that promotes worldwide educational access by providing children with inexpensive, durable laptops. It does not work in Iran, but has worked with other countries that have complicated diplomatic relationships with the US.

“It’s not clear to me, in the long history of foreign policy, how successful sanction and isolation have been in normalized relations between countries,” Mr. Fadel says. “They’re more likely to be resolved through dialogue and creating connections between two people.”

One Laptop Per Child recently provided laptops for children in the Gaza Strip via the UN. When Fadel attended a summit on education in the Middle East earlier this year, he said OLPC was the only NGO in the room to even attempt to find a way through US sanctions against Hamas in order to pursue educational and development opportunities for Palestinians.

“The interpretation of the sanctions and the politics around them imposed such an obstacle, it just chilled any effort to think through them,” Fadel recalls. The chilling effect is likely to be even more pronounced with Iran, he adds.

But when there is no other interaction between the US and Iran, those conversations and resulting relationships are crucial, Abdi says.

“When you have an American organization in Iran, Iranians see that,” he said, citing a US-built hospital that is referred to as “the American hospital.”

When there are no official ties, “you have to establish people-to-people relations,” he said. “You have to make the face of the US the humanitarian missions, the relief missions.”