Civil society in Iran is one of the region’s most active, but it is currently under more pressure than civil society in many other countries in the region. There are estimated to be from 5,000 to 8,000 NGOs active in Iran, including Islamic charities, as well as secular organizations, local groups, and internationally known organizations. Iranian NGOs cover a wide spectrum of issues, from environmental protection and human rights to poverty alleviation and domestic violence.
Civil-society activism developed as a result of the brief openness during the tenure of reformist President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005). Khatami tried to promote concepts such as freedom of thought, pluralism, civil society, and the rule of law and provided subsidies to help develop the NGO sector, but he failed to institute safeguards to prevent its dismantlement.
Registration of any NGO in Iran requires a permit from the Interior Ministry. Few NGOs have been granted official recognition by the government, and they face arbitrary inspection and closure. Another problem is funding: donations, especially foreign, to Iran’s NGOs are subject to severe restrictions. Iranian NGOs have recently tended to avoid associating with foreign-based NGOs, for fear they may arouse suspicion. While civil society is still very active, many participants and activists have, since the government crackdown on activism, pulled back from some politically more sensitive topics.
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