The Bush administration, shunning pressure from allies for direct dialogue with Iran, is shifting toward a more confrontational stance and intensifying efforts to undercut the country’s ruling clerics.
U.S. officials have taken a series of steps to increase pressure on Iran, most recently creating new offices in the State Department and Pentagon specifically to bolster opposition to the Tehran government. In February, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked Congress for $75 million to supplement $10 million in funds to promote democracy, aid Iranian dissidents and expand the Voice of America’s Persian-language broadcasts beamed across the Persian Gulf from Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.
“We are more out of sync now with Iran than at any time since 1979,” said a State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I don’t think the time is right now for a dialogue. We seem to be moving closer toward a confrontational stance, versus a compromise stance.”
Although some observers note similarities in the Iran policy to the stance on Iraq in the lead-up to the war in that nation, officials emphasize that this time around, State Department diplomats rather than Pentagon war planners are in charge. Still, the campaign illustrates the administration’s hostility toward Iran’s rulers and raises the question of whether its ultimate goal is to curb Iran’s nuclear program or change the regime.
“The administration is trying to make regime change through democratization the policy, instead of making confrontation by military means the policy,” said Trita Parsi, a Middle East specialist at Johns Hopkins University who advocates direct U.S. talks with Tehran.
The administration’s efforts are taking shape on the second floor of the State Department, where a new Office of Iranian Affairs has been charged with leading the push to back Iranian dissidents more aggressively, boost support to democracy broadcasters and strengthen ties with exiles.
Nearby at the Pentagon, an Iranian directorate will work with the State Department office to undercut the government in Tehran.
Rice and other officials have publicly advocated steps to pressure the Iranian government. But by setting up the new offices, staffs and programs, the administration is institutionalizing its long-held antipathy toward Iran’s government.
The new offices are modest in size -- the Pentagon’s directorate began with six full-time staff members. But they can draw on expertise throughout the government, providing access to potentially hundreds of specialists.
The State Department’s new Iranian Affairs office is headed by David Denehy, a longtime democracy specialist at the International Republican Institute, who will work under Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Elizabeth Cheney, daughter of the vice president.
Recently, Denehy and other officials went to Los Angeles for meetings with Iranian exiles and the Persian-language media. The purpose was to inform them of the government’s plans, get feedback and -- perhaps not a secondary consideration -- create a buzz within the Iranian American diaspora and its satellite media outlets, which are beamed into Tehran.
Afterward, some Iranian Americans were left disappointed by their first look at the new campaign and by the fact that officials had not begun distributing money to exile groups.
“They came here -- we didn’t know why they came -- asking: ‘What do you think about Iran? Do you have any connections to people inside?’ ” recounted Zia Atabay, the founder of Los Angeles-based NITV, a Persian-language broadcaster. “We said, ‘The reason you are here is you know we have a connection.’ ”
Assistance to dissidents in Iran is complicated by the Iranian regime’s demonstrated brutality toward its critics -- writers, bloggers, trade union members and human rights activists -- much less anyone perceived to be receiving U.S. aid. For that reason, the State Department does not publicly disclose whom it funds.
Even private U.S. groups receiving money to support democracy efforts in Iran are reluctant to discuss their programs for fear they will put their Iranian partners in harm’s way.
As much as $50 million of the funds requested will go to the Voice of America for Persian-language broadcasts. The State Department also is planning to send 15 foreign service officers to countries neighboring Iran and to capitals with large Iranian exile populations to serve as “Iran watchers.”
At the Pentagon, the new Iranian directorate has been set up inside its policy shop, which previously housed the Office of Special Plans. The controversial intelligence analysis unit, established before the Iraq war, championed some of the claims of Ahmad Chalabi. A number of assertions made by the former Iraqi exile and onetime Pentagon favorite were later discredited.
Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Barry Venable declined to name the acting director of the new Iran office and would say only that the appointee was a “career civil servant.” Among those staffing or advising the Iranian directorate are three veterans of the Office of Special Plans: Abram N. Shulsky, its former director; John Trigilio, a Defense Intelligence Agency analyst; and Ladan Archin, an Iran specialist.
Even if the chief U.S. goal is arresting Iran’s nuclear program -- and not overthrowing the government -- the democratization effort could be a useful part of the strategy, some experts said.
“The State Department policy of isolating the regime diplomatically is the main policy so far,” said Daniel Byman, a professor at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and a former CIA analyst who also worked for the Sept. 11 commission.
“But there are all these different ways you could game this. Supporting opposition groups could also be a way of raising the stakes, in effect saying, ‘Here’s what we are going to do if you won’t comply,’ ” he said.
The new focus also may be contradictory, Richard N. Haass, a State Department official during President Bush’s first term and now president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said at a conference in Washington this month. .
“We are telling Iran, ‘We want regime change, but while you’re still here, we’d like to negotiate with you to stop your nuclear program,’ ” Haass said.