Senior officials in Washington may not see it this way but programs announced this week by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice certainly appear to be designed to undermine, if not overthrow, the regime in Tehran. Clearly, Rice and other senior officials in her department don't want to talk about advocating regime change using that term, but what else can the aim be?
In testimony before several Congressional committees, Rice asked for an additional $75 million to go with $10 million already available to promote democracy and democratic reforms in Iran. An excerpt from Rice's testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said "The United States will actively confront the aggressive policies of the Iranian regime. At the same time, we will work to support the aspirations of the Iranian people for freedom and democracy in their country."
On the one hand, no one -— including Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -— should be surprised. On the other hand, he was elected by the Iranian people and sees this as an effort to remove him. Meanwhile, at every opportunity, Bush administration officials question the legitimacy of the election since perhaps as many as a thousand candidates were not allowed to have their names on the ballots.
The $85 million dollars requested would be used for a variety of programs ranging from increased hours of radio and television broadcasts beamed into Iran by the VOA, Radio Farda and possibly other outlets which would broadcast in Farsi; for the organization of civil society and non-governmental groups which would promote democratic ends, and for scholarships and fellowships to bring Iranian students to the United States to study.
Senior officials who briefed reporters at the State Department acknowledged the difficulty of launching and supporting some of these programs, because the Iranian regime is very good at infiltrating them. "It is probably impossible right now to find a group inside Iran that you could be confident wasn't infiltrated," said one official who worked to develop the program. "We understand very well that people we begin to work with will become targets and so, I think you will see us as not being as public as we might otherwise be about specific individuals we're working with," the official said.
There is almost nothing the Bush administration likes about the regime in Tehran. At the top of the list of complaints is Iran's effort to gain the capability, as Washington sees it, to build nuclear weapons. For many years now, Iran has been at the top of America's list of state sponsors of terrorism because of its support for Hezbollah, Hamas and other groups.
As if these two problem areas were not enough reason to be unhappy with Iranian policy, another senior official this week expressed what he said was "acute concern" not only over the first two issues but also another which he and Rice call a "democracy deficit" in Iran. It is to address this last concern that Rice asked for the extra money from Congress this week.
The patient yet persistent diplomatic effort by the administration over the past year has made very good progress, especially its effort to persuade most of the rest of the world that Iran's nuclear aim is military, not civilian. To that end, the United States was joined not only by its European allies, but also by Russia, China, Egypt, Brazil and others in a move to take Iran before the U.N. Security Council, where more pressure and the possibility of sanctions confront the regime. In an interview with CBS News, Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns said Iran's action this week to resume work on uranium enrichment crossed what he called an "international red line."
There are analysts in Washington who say the diplomatic successes of the past year have come in part, precisely because of such moves by the Iranian regime, which, together with bellicose and outrageous statements made by Iran's Ahmadinejad related to Israel's existence and a denial of the Holocaust, have helped the Bush administration drive Iran to the point where it faces security council restrictions, which is why some found the administration's new programs to support democracy announced this week counterproductive.
"It is unfathomable," said Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, "they would essentially announce they were trying to overthrow the Iranian government. If there's anything that would harm the coalition more, I don't know what it is."
For the Bush administration, it is all about applying pressure on the regime in Tehran. And the effort isn't going to stop simply with Washington's actions. Efforts are being discussed to get the Europeans to threaten the placement of economic restrictions on their trade with Iran and late in the week, Rice herself signaled an effort to get Iran's regional neighbors to play a role.
Speaking to Arab-based media in Washington before her departure next week for the Middle East and Persian Gulf, Rice, according to wire reports, said "I would hope that those states who are worried about this (the potential of Iran's nuclear weapons capability)… are prepared to really say to the Iranians: 'You are going to be isolated from us too if you continue down this road.'"
Perhaps the full court press is on because Washington wants to seize the moment at a time it perceives Tehran vulnerable to outside pressure. Or maybe it's just another way to wield the administration's democracy hammer against a regime it not only doesn't like, but also refuses to talk to.
Charles M. Wolfson