U.S. Moves to Weaken Iran
A campaign to promote democracy and fund dissidents prompts
speculation that the administration's goal is to change the
By Laura Rozen
Special to The Times
-- -- WASHINGTON — 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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
"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.