U.S. Aid Would Fund Iran Opposition

Times Staff Writer

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in a move to broaden pressure on Tehran’s theocratic regime, asked Congress on Wednesday to sharply increase spending to promote democracy in Iran, from $10 million to $85 million this year.

The money would be used to support political opposition and civil society groups in Iran, increase U.S. broadcasting into the country and underwrite more student study in the United States, Rice said.

“No one wants to see a Middle East that is dominated by an Iranian hegemony, particularly one that has access to nuclear technology,” Rice said, appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.


The move reflects the Bush administration’s recognition that diplomatic efforts to halt Tehran’s nuclear program face long odds and attempts to reform the regime from the inside may offer one of the best chances for keeping it free of nuclear weapons.

But Iranian officials, who are highly sensitive to signs of foreign influence, are likely to point to the effort as another example of U.S. meddling and try to use it to foster anti-Americanism and build support for the regime, analysts said.

The United Nations Security Council is considering a report by the world body’s nuclear watchdog agency that Iran is in breach of agreements intended to provide safeguards on the country’s nuclear program, which Tehran insists is peaceful but which the U.S. and European nations believe is aimed at developing nuclear weapons.

As outlined by Rice, $50 million of the new outlay would allow the United States to broadcast Farsi-language programs 24 hours a day. Another $15 million would be earmarked for increasing participation in the political process, including measures such as expanded Internet access. The administration hopes to spend $5 million to fund scholarships and fellowships for young Iranians, and the State Department said $5 million “would go to public diplomacy efforts aimed at Iran, including its Persian-language website.”

Jon Wolfsthal, a proliferation expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said spending more to transmit broadcasts into Iran would probably have limited impact, considering that many Iranians have satellite dishes and can watch foreign programming. He said that although promoting democracy was worthwhile, “there has to be a recognition that the Iranian regime has a stable hold.... This can’t be a substitute for a broader policy” to restrain the country’s nuclear ambitions.

Wolfsthal said the initiative also reflected domestic pressure on the administration to do more about the perceived danger posed by Iran.

One of the advocacy groups that has been most alarmed by Iran, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, praised the administration’s move, calling it “decisive steps to promote freedom, human rights and democracy in Iran.”

Rice did not give details of how the money would be delivered, but she said federal prohibitions restricting aid and fund transfers to Iran would be eased.

At the Senate hearing, members of both parties questioned whether the administration’s strategy in the Middle East, built around promoting democracy, had improved the situation.

Some noted that U.S.-backed elections had strengthened the influence of Iran, giving more power to militant groups Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories, and seating a Shiite-dominated Iraqi government with strong ties to Tehran.

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) praised the administration for recently focusing on multinational diplomacy, but he said he did not see how “things are getting better.”

“I think they’re getting worse in Iraq. I think they’re getting worse in Iran,” Hagel said. He added that he hoped Hamas’ rise to power would “start to develop in a different direction.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said elections in the Middle East and Latin America had handed power to “negative candidates who run against America,” and she questioned whether the administration had properly handled policy.

Rice insisted that the elections had “made the world -- in a transitional state -- a better place.”

“There are going to be some outcomes that are not perfect from an American point of view,” she said.

“But I don’t think our policy can be that you can only have elections if you plan to elect ... candidates that are friendly to America.”