By Barbara Slavin
WASHINGTON For the first time in a quarter-century of estrangement from Iran, the Bush administration is openly preparing to spend government funds in that country to promote democracy.
Congress has appropriated $3 million, and the State Department is inviting proposals from "educational institutions, humanitarian groups, non-governmental organizations and individuals inside Iran to support the advancement of democracy and human rights," according to an announcement posted Friday on the Web site of the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
Although the amount is small and Iran's government may try to bar Iranians from accepting funds the move is a significant departure for the United States, which by policy and treaty has not publicly sought to funnel money into Iran for such a purpose in 25 years.
"It's a sea change," says Les Campbell, who is in charge of Middle East programs at the National Democratic Institute, which receives U.S. funds to promote democracy and human rights abroad. "We're very interested."
The U.S. government already spends nearly $15 million a year on radio and TV broadcasts into Iran in the Persian language, Farsi. But the United States has not given money directly to Iranians or U.S. organizations to work in Iran because of long-standing hostility and a U.S. prohibition on spending money there.
Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on Sunday called the U.S. plan "a clear violation of the Algiers accords," which freed 52 U.S. Embassy hostages in Iran in 1981. Zarif said Iran "has the option" of complaining to a special court in the Netherlands. Under the Algiers agreement, the United States pledged "not to intervene directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran's internal affairs."
The State Department had no immediate comment.
Since the agreement was signed, Iran has supported groups such as Hezbollah that the United States regards as terrorist, and it has made progress on a nuclear program that could yield the ability to make bombs.
Iran's political system, which allows Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to block the wishes of an elected president and parliament, is increasingly unpopular in Iran. Some Iranians have boycotted elections and registered protests on the Internet. More than 500 intellectuals have signed a petition to hold a referendum to change the constitution. One object is to get rid of the office of supreme leader.
In his second inaugural address in January, President Bush promised Iranians: "As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you."
The Iranian government rejected Bush's words as supporting an overthrow of the regime and said he would fail. It is unclear whether Iranians will accept U.S. support. Older Iranians are particularly sensitive to U.S. intervention. The CIA organized a coup in 1953 that removed an elected prime minister and restored Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to the throne. In 1979, a revolution overthrew the shah and replaced him with a regime run by Shiite Muslim clerics.
According to the State Department notice, the United States seeks to promote development of political parties, an "open and free media environment," labor unions, other non-governmental organizations and projects that promote respect for human rights.