Friday, April 14, 2006

U.S. Seeks a 'Change' in Tehran

Steven R. Weisman, The New York Times:
As the Bush administration confronts the Tehran government over its suspected nuclear weapons program and its alleged support for 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. READ MORE

The project, which is slated to 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 wants for scholarships, exchange programs, radio and television broadcasts and other activities aimed at shaking up Iran's political system.

The effort, which is being overseen by Elizabeth Cheney, a deputy assistant secretary of state who is the daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney, has been denounced by Iran's leaders as meddling in their country's 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 contingencies are being reviewed, too.

While the United States has marshaled international support for diplomatic pressure on Iran, some allies have expressed misgivings about other avenues of pressure, which are seen as aimed at undermining the regime in Tehran.

One Asian diplomat said the effort was reminiscent of the subsidies that the United States provided to Iraqi exile groups in the 1990s. "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 rift between his country and the United States on a significant foreign policy matter.

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 numerous applications had been received and that the department would have little trouble spending the allotted funds. 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," said the official, 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 could incur. There have been reports in Iran of activists being arrested after they met with American officials at conferences, though some experts charge that Iran has exaggerated those reports to discourage contacts with the West.

Leader unimpressed by Rice

The Iranian president on Friday dismissed remarks by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who said the United Nations must consider strong action to force Iran to comply with demands about its nuclear plans, Reuters reported from Tehran.

"What she said is not important. She is free to speak out," Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on the sidelines of a conference in Tehran, the official IRNA news agency reported.

At the conference, which concerned support for the Palestinians, Ahmadinejad fired a series of verbal shots at Israel, saying it was a "permanent threat" to the Middle East that will "soon" be liberated. He called Israel a "rotten, dried tree" that will be annihilated by "one storm."