In a recent interview with the New Yorker, Iran's Foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, explained to interviewer Robin Wright that the Iranian government is not supporting or sponsoring the upcoming cartoon festival in Tehran on the theme of the Holocaust. He made clear that the festival is organized by an NGO that is not controlled by the Iranian government; And even expounded that, so far as the "government" is concerned, his ministry would insure that the records and history of participants who have preached racial hatred and violence in the past will be taken into account when issuing entry visas to Iran. 

Dr. Zarif even quipped that neither he, nor President Rouhani, will be going to that festival’s opening.

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In response - and in line with the tired old narrative that there are no "moderates" in Iran - the Washington Post Editorial board concocted a misleading and disingenuous piece to prove, at all costs, that the Foreign minister was not sincere in his attempt to distance his government from the organizers of the event. 

In this vein, the WP editorial board argued that the two main NGOs staging the event - namely Owj Media and Cultural Institute and the Sarcheshmeh Cultural Complex - had been funded by two other organizations whose budget is approved by the Iranian parliament, demonstrating in this Holmesian way how the money trail leads to the culprit! 

In other words, the editorial board conveniently disregarded the Foreign minister's meaningful and unequivocal repudiation of the festival to invoke "guilt by remote association" within a complex judicio-political system whose internal dynamics and "associations" it apparently completely misunderstands.  

The fact that Owj Media and Cultural Institute is known to be one of the main financiers and organizers of systematic smear campaigns against Dr. Zarif, President Rouhani and the nuclear deal in Iran is yet an other significant point that the WP editorial board has conveniently missed.

NGOs in the Iran, like in the U.S, often receive full or partial grants and funding from government entities.  The application and approval process is a complex one, which is often marked by good connections with well-placed bureaucrats, nepotism and preferential treatments. But at the end, established NGOs get to enjoy their non-governmental status and operate autonomously, notwithstanding the source of their funding. 

True, just like organizations such as "Planned Parenthood" in the U.S, some of these NGOs have grown strong, acquired tremendous influence and operate as major "political" actors within the Iranian polity. Just like in the U.S, some of these organizations cannot be easily contained or even denied public funding without a fierce political arm wrestling. But they remain, nonetheless, "non-governmental" in every sense of the word.

Claiming that the Iranian government should be held responsible for these NGOs actions, or suggesting that Iran's Foreign minister should be stripped of his "moderate" label because these organizations enjoy space or permits to carry out their business, is simplistic and superficial at best.

The interests of the Washington Post readers would certainly be better served if the renown newspaper told the whole truth about the complex dynamism of Iranian politics, with all the subtleties and nuances that it involves. 

In the United States, about 1.5 million NGOs are in operation, many of whom receive funding from local, state and federal government entities. In fact, the U.S federal government directly sponsors and funds some of the most hawkish think tanks that fiercely engage in warmongering, produce impactful policy recommendations on the Middle East and actively contribute to Iranophobia. There are also scores of publicly funded, or tax exempt, organizations in the U.S that, within the past few years, have trivialized Islamophobia to the point that "banning muslims from entering the country" has now become a well received campaign slogan in the U.S presidential elections.

The Washington Post Editorial board may want to address some of these much "closer to home" domestic issues and attempt to find solutions before it's too late, instead of so clumsily trying to decipher the role of NGOs within Iran's complex sociopolitical structure.


Reza Nasri is an international lawyer from Geneva's Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, specializing in Iranian affairs.