Officials at State have money in hand but are still weighing how to best effect change.
By Sonni Efron and Mark Mazzetti
WASHINGTON The Bush administration is considering a more aggressive effort to foster opposition inside Iran and seeking ways to use a new $3-million fund to support activists without exposing them to the risk of arrest.
The approach would represent a change since President Bush's first term, when the administration was more wary of such potentially dangerous moves, officials said.
"We can now be much more aggressive [about Iran"> than we had been," a senior official said, hailing the arrival of Condoleezza Rice at the State Department as invigorating the president's push for democracy.
"The guys at the State Department were too afraid to try anything during the first term," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "They were extremely cautious about angering the regime in Tehran."
The more aggressive approach is being considered even while Bush moves toward supporting a plan created by France, Germany and Britain to offer Iran economic incentives to forgo nuclear weapons. Bush discussed the issue with Rice on Thursday.
Iran contends that its nuclear energy program is peaceful, but U.S. and European officials have charged that it may be reserving a nuclear weapons option.
Among the proposals being floated by some inside and outside government is one to fund activists in Iran who want to start opposition parties and labor unions, or people who are able to travel in and out of the country. Also under consideration is increasing funding for pro-democracy broadcasts.
The question of how to implement Bush's inaugural pledge to spread freedom has taken on urgency since Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) added $3 million to a recently approved spending bill specifically to promote democracy in Iran. Officials are weighing ideas for the money, a State Department official said.
"There are some that want to engage in a more confrontational democratization effort within Iran," he said.
The counterargument is that giving U.S. funds to reformers may doom them, the official said, because they risk being discredited by their association with the nation the Iranian regime calls the Great Satan and would probably be targeted by the police.
The State Department is looking for "appropriate opportunities" to spend money inside and outside Iran, a second official said. Reflecting the debate within the administration, the second official argued that no funds would be spent to directly support political parties or labor unions, something the United States rarely, if ever, does.
No organization that identifies itself as an "opposition" group can survive inside Iran, the first official said. "The short answer is, we're trying to figure out how to use the money. We haven't quite figured it out."
Despite disagreements on other aspects of the effort, the U.S. officials involved in the process support funding activists inside Iran as opposed to Iranian exiles. They hope to avoid a scenario similar to what many see as the U.S. mistake of backing Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi, who is believed to have fed U.S. intelligence false information about Iraqi weapons programs and is now accused of aiding Iran's intelligence services.
The trouble is that Washington lacks good intelligence about internal political forces and individuals, the first State Department official said. "We don't have a good picture of what's inside Iran."
Moreover, the CIA has been reluctant to get involved in covert action there, he said. "They've gone down that road before, and it's been a mixed bag."
More than a decade ago, dozens of CIA informants in Iran were executed or imprisoned after secret communications with the agency were uncovered, CIA officials said recently.
"The CIA wants a clear objective," the State Department official added. "Is the policy regime change? Everyone says it's not, including Condi. So what is it we're trying to do, and how are we going to do it without having a lot of blood on our hands?"
One official who will have a big say on Iran policy is Elizabeth Cheney, the daughter of the vice president, who returned to the State Department this month to head democracy promotion efforts.
The United States is already spending $14.7 million a year to broadcast Persian-language radio and television programs into Iran, and the White House is seeking a sharp increase in such funding.
The Voice of America's Persian service broadcasts news on shortwave and AM radio from Kuwait for an hour in the morning and three hours in the evening. It also hosts a website that receives about 100 e-mails a day from its audience.
VOA also broadcasts a daily half-hour satellite TV news program prepared in Washington. Although it is illegal to own a satellite dish in Iran, an estimated 15 million Iranians are believed to have access to satellite TV, according to a U.S. official who is familiar with international broadcasting.
Because of the difficulty of surveying the Iranian public, U.S. officials do not know how many actually tune in.
In 2002, the United States launched an AM radio station called Radio Farda, which aims to lure a youthful audience with hard news and popular music.
The Bush administration has asked Congress for an additional $5.7 million in its fiscal 2006 and supplemental budget requests to expand TV broadcasting to three hours a day.
Brownback favors spending some of the $3 million on a conference in the United States to bring together Iranian dissidents, human rights activists and others to discuss the state of the democracy movement, a step he said had been useful in other countries.
The effort should tap people inside Iran as well as members of the Iranian diaspora with ties to their homeland, Brownback said.
If the participants have broad civil support "underneath them, they will start to network and move ahead on their own."
It is unclear, however, whether Iranians who oppose the current government would come to the U.S. to attend a conference on democracy.
Some U.S. conservatives support direct funding of Iranian activists.
"The worst option would be just to fund a conference," argued Michael Rubin, a former U.S. advisor in Iraq who is now associated with the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "The only good that ever comes out of conferences is that top U.S. officials get to stay in five-star hotels."
The least controversial course of action would be to spend the money on expanding broadcasting to Iran. But State Department officials want more creative solutions and have been asking outside experts for ideas.
"It's easy to throw more money" at broadcasting, the second State Department official said. "Is that the most effective? I'm not sure."
How to fund reformers around the world without delivering them to the secret police is a problem that has bedeviled U.S. policymakers for at least 25 years, said Thomas Carothers, a specialist in democratic movements at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
For decades, the United States has earmarked money to promote democracy in Cuba but has had trouble spending it because of the danger of discrediting pro-democracy groups and the limitations of funding exiles, Carothers said.
"Democracy aid struggles when faced with highly resistant, authoritarian regimes, especially ones that use anti-Americanism as one of their reasons for being, like Cuba and Iran," he said.
The United States needs to find ways to show would-be reformers what they can do, but can't pay them to do it, Carothers said. "We can't buy political action." One of the most sensitive issues inside Iran remains the 1953 CIA-backed coup against Iranian Premier Mohammed Mossadegh, which brought the shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, back to power, noted Geoffrey Kemp, an Iran specialist at the Nixon Center. Even the most determined Iranian reformers would be wary of publicly embracing any U.S.-backed initiative.
"And of course if they do it covertly, they would be identified by the regime as spies and hauled off and put on trial," Kemp said.
He proposed using the $3 million to streamline the visa process to have more Iranians visit the United States.
Rubin said that instead of giving money directly to labor unions or political parties inside Iran, the United States could create an endowment outside the country and allow Iranians to apply for grants anonymously.
"The Iranians are big boys and girls," he said. "They can decide whether or not to accept money."