U.S. Program Is Directed at Altering Iran's Politics
By STEVEN R. WEISMAN
-- -- WASHINGTON, April 8 — As the
Bush administration confronts the Tehran government over its
suspected nuclear weapons program and accusations that it
supports terrorism, a newly created office of Iranian affairs in
the State Department is poring over applications for a rapidly
expanding program to change the political process inside Iran.
The project, which will spend $7 million in the current fiscal
year, would become many times larger next year if Congress
approves a broad request for $85 million that the Bush
administration has requested for scholarships, exchange
programs, radio and television broadcasts and other activities
aimed at shaking up Iran's political system.
The effort, overseen by Elizabeth Cheney, a deputy assistant
secretary of state who is a daughter of Vice President Dick
Cheney, has been denounced by Iran's leaders as meddling in
their internal affairs.
It comes at a time of escalating confrontation between Iran and
the United States over Iran's nuclear program, exacerbated by
reports, which the administration has played down, that military
contingency plans are being reviewed as well.
While the United States has marshaled international support for
diplomatic pressure on Iran, some Asian and European allies have
expressed misgivings about other avenues of pressure, which are
seen as aimed at undermining the government in Tehran.
One Asian diplomat said the effort was reminiscent of the
subsidies the United States provided to Iraqi exile groups in
the 1990's. "They don't call it 'regime change,' but that is
obviously what it is," he said. But he had to be promised
anonymity before he would discuss it, not wanting to create a
public rift between his country and the United States on a
significant matter of foreign policy.
To find people to promote change in Iran, the State Department
has opened a competition for grant applications. A Web site
announcement says that applicants "must outline activities
linked to reform and demonstrate how the proposed approach would
achieve sustainable impact in Iran."
A State Department official said that numerous applications had
come in and that the department would have little trouble
spending the $25 million in the next year. But he acknowledged
that various groups were squabbling over how best to promote
reform and who would be most effective in doing so.
"Iran is governed by an unelected clerical elite not accountable
to the people," the official said, speaking anonymously under
ground rules imposed by the department. "But despite
considerable personal risk, we are seeing some activists willing
to step forward."
The biggest problem for the applicants is the amount of risk
they might incur. There have been reports in Iran of advocates
of change being arrested after having met with American
officials at conferences, though some experts charge that Iran
has exaggerated those reports in order to discourage contacts
with the West.
Other experts said that some of the people who were stepping
forward might not be the best ones to get the money.
"It sounds good to fund civil society groups, but not when you
don't know who the groups are," said Vali R. Nasr, an
Iranian-born professor of national affairs at the Naval
Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. "No real group wants a
direct affiliation with the United States. It will just get them
into trouble with the government."
Administration officials said a few top American officials had
been traveling the country, particularly to Los Angeles, to meet
with Iranian exile organizations, many of them supporters of the
monarchy of Shah Reza Pahlavi, who was overthrown in 1979. Some
of the Los Angeles groups operate satellite radio and television
stations that beam programs into Iran.
But State Department officials said they were not likely to
enlist groups associated with the monarchy because, in their
view, they do not seem to have much support in Iran.
Lorne W. Craner, president of the International Republican
Institute, a foundation linked to the Republican Party, said,
"There are plenty of people out there who have a checkered past
who you would not want to work with."
The institute, which receives money from Congress and grants
from the State Department, has in the last couple of years
linked up with groups and individuals in Iran and offered them
training at places outside the country. The groups cannot be
identified for fear of their safety, he said.
State Department officials and various advocates for change
consulted by the department said that for now the money would
probably be concentrated on groups seeking to document human
rights abuses and promote women's and labor rights, rather than
groups seeking direct political change.
Recipients of such financing in the past said that in order to
operate they had to avoid the perception that they are tools of
"The administration has consulted many Iranians just to find out
who to talk to," said Roya Boroumand, co-director of the
Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, which seeks to document human
rights abuses inside Iran. "We try not to be in touch with too
many people inside Iran because we know it could be fatal."
The Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, a new group based in
New Haven, has received $1 million from the State Department and
could receive more, officials said. But leaders of the group
emphasize that while they have contacts with people in Iran, it
is not for the purpose of overthrowing the government.
"We are pro-human rights, but we are not directly seeking regime
change," said Maura Johnson, the center's executive director.
"That's not our agenda. When you look at many other countries,
improved human rights can occur without regime change, through
reforms and stronger institutions."
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
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