Published October 08, 2009
A decision by the Obama administration to deny federal funding to a group that keeps track of human rights abuses in Iran is a misguided attempt by the White House to appear non-confrontational with the Islamic republic, critics say.
The Connecticut-based Iran Human Rights Documentation Center has received more than $3 million in grants from the State Department since its inception in 2004. Executive Director Rene Redman learned in July that the group's federal funding request was denied, an unexpected decision given the abuse of protesters in Iran following the country's disputed June 12 presidential election.
The State Department has not divulged the reason the request was denied.
"We were surprised that we were denied funding because that was a time when were watching demonstrations in Iran being put down brutally and the arrest and torture of people," Redman told FOXNews.com. "And that's what we do -- we document these types of abuses."
Redman said the group, which has eight employees, had sought $2.7 million over the next two years. It will now seek private donors, but without additional dollars, the center will shut down next May.
Some U.S. lawmakers said the sudden reversal -- after five years of funding approvals -- was "disturbing," and a significant shift in America's approach to dealing with Iran.
"The Iran Human Rights Documentation Center is at the forefront of pioneering and vitally important work," Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said in a statement to FOXNews.com. "It is disturbing that the State Department would cut off funding at precisely the moment when these brave investigations are needed most."
Jim Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation, said the "surprising" decision to cut off federal funding to the group shows that President Obama is "turning a blind eye" to human rights abuses in Iran.
"It's a sign that the administration is so desperate for success with its engagement policy that it's willing to try to ingratiate itself with the Iranian regime," Phillips said. "That's wishful thinking that will inevitably fail."
Harry Edwards, spokesman for the U.S. Agency for International Development, a division of the State Department, would not divulge a reason for denying the center's request for funding, but he said the government's funding priorities remain unchanged.
"U.S. government priorities for the region continue to include support for civil society and advocacy, promoting the rule of law and human rights, and increasing access to alternative sources of information," Edwards said in a statement to FOXNews.com. "Applications submitted to USAID are thoroughly reviewed against the evaluations criteria outlined in its solicitations."
Edwards declined to indicate why funding was denied to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, citing "proprietary" issues.
Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, said the move reeks of desperation on behalf of the Obama administration regarding Iran.
"Basically what the administration is doing is acting like a compulsive gambler who keeps losing at the blackjack table and keeps going further and further down the hole," Rubin said. "They're so focused on the small picture of Iran engagement that they can't see the larger picture, which is the Iranian people."
Rubin continued, "They're so focused on engaging this regime that they're blind to the fact that by simply exposing this regime for what it is, they could weaken it to the point of collapse."
Suzanne Maloney, of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute, a liberal-leaning think tank, warned against equating the funding denial to a change in policy.
"I could see why it's being seen as a policy symbol, but we have to be careful not to create tempests and teapots where they don't exist," Maloney said. "This funding is not intended to send policy signals. In all likelihood, this is a bureaucratic decision."
Redman, meanwhile, said the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center will continue to investigating crimes against humanity by the Iranian regime, regardless of who's in power. The group is currently developing a list of people who were arrested after the summer election and investigating alleged abuses of prisoners in Iran.
"It didn't make sense," Redman said of the funding denial. "But we will keep pursuing our mission."