Thursday, April 13, 2006

Bush, Congress at Odds Over Tactics on Iran

Eli Lake, The New York Sun:
The Bush administration and Congress are at odds over whether some of the $75 million President Bush requested for pro-democracy broadcasting into Iran should go toward private broadcasters.

In recent weeks, the State Department has quietly explored funding for an Iranian student radio station to be broadcast inside the country as a part of the aid program Secretary of State Rice requested for opposition activities in February.

The proposal has already been discussed with congressional staffers and could be a bone of contention in talks on how to spend the public money proposed for Iranian opposition activities.

Administration and congressional officials say the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House appropriations panel, dealing with foreign aid, would like the $50 million set aside in the request for broadcasting to go solely toward bolstering the activities of Radio Farda and the Voice of America's television station. READ MORE

The administration, however, would like some of that money to go to private broadcasters, and in particular a possible start-up affiliated with Iran's student movement.

While the amounts of money are small, the policy fight reflects a broader contest over the Bush administration's approach to providing financial aid to Iranian opposition activities in the twilight of its second term.

Funding the Voice of America's Persian television and radio service would ultimately vest power over the content of the broadcasts with the state-funded Broadcasting Board of Governors. To the institution's credit, it has hired a number of Iranian Americans in recent months to ensure the broadcasts would be credible and effective.

Should money be made available to student groups in Iran, however, the American government would have less control over the content, but the programming would be more attuned to the Iranian people and thereby more effective. However, given the pressures on the opposition inside Iran, the money could place the recipients of the new funding at risk of imprisonment.

A proponent of directing the money to the students, former Ambassador Mark Palmer, who is the vice chairman of the board of Freedom House, said yesterday, "I am so frustrated. Condi Rice announced the $75 million for Iran, but where is all the money going? Some of this should go to private broadcasters. But the Broadcasting Board of Governors is fighting for all of it."

Mr. Palmer has made the case in Congress and at Foggy Bottom for reserving some of the proposed $50 million for private broadcasters and in particular for student run radio stations.

He said the model for private participation would be Dijla Radio, one of the most successful new stations in Iraq, which was started with only $300,000 in aid money from the Swedish government. "It's really critical for there to be some independent stations," he said.

The State Department originally justified the $50 million portion of its new aid request for broadcasting as going largely to create a 24-hour Voice of America television service and to improve broadcasting capabilities into Iran.

A spokesman yesterday for the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Biden of Delaware, yesterday said that while he was unfamiliar with the specifics of the aid request, Mr. Biden generally favored boosting support for the Voice of America's Iranian service.

"Senator Biden has had, as you know. a long-standing appreciation generally of the work of the Broadcasting Board of Governors," Norm Kurz said. "The projects, things like al-Hurra, Radio Sawa, and Radio Farda, while imperfect, are probably the best things going on in these issues and should be encouraged." Mr. Kurz added, "It would not surprise me if he came down on running these things through the Broadcasting Board of Governors and Radio Farda."

The Bush administration's interest in Iran's opposition movement has coincided with an increase in saber rattling between the mullahs and the White House over Iran's quest to master the nuclear fuel cycle. On Tuesday, President Ahmadinejad announced that Iranian scientists had successfully enriched nuclear fuel. Yesterday, Iran's deputy nuclear chief Mohammad Saeedi said on Iranian television that uranium enrichment would proceed at an "industrial level" at the Natanz facility.

The Iranians admitted to operating the Natanz centrifuge facility in 2003 after having worked on it for nearly 20 years without declaring it to the International Atomic Energy Agency, as they are obliged to do under international treaties.

Yesterday, Secretary of State Rice countered the recent announcements by calling on the United Nations Security Council to take action. "I do think that the Security Council will need to take into consideration this move by Iran," she said. Ms. Rice added that the international body should consider "strong steps to make certain that we maintain the credibility of the international community on this issue," an argument reminiscent of the one her predecessor made at the United Nations before the Iraq war.
Since the broadcasts are in Persian most Americans have no idea the content. But Iranian opposition groups are increasingly frustrated at the confusing content of their broadcasts. They claim the content is actually undermining US pro-democracy efforts inside of Iran. I am told these broadcasts are being monitored by Iranian opposition groups.