WASHINGTON -- For the first time, Congress is set to approve government funds openly earmarked to help undermine the Islamic government of Iran by providing money for dissidents inside the country, according to US officials and specialists.
The program calls for an initial $1.5 million to be spent next year to support the efforts of Iranians and Iranian organizations seeking to replace the government in Tehran with a democracy.
Though a relatively small amount of money, the funding carries great symbolic weight. Past efforts to use US government money to support Iranian dissidents have been sidetracked before reaching a final vote because of concerns that they would violate sanctions prohibiting any money from going to Iran, as well as an agreement in 1981, shortly after the release of US hostages in Tehran, to refrain from actively opposing the Iranian government.
But this time, Senator Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican with close ties to the Bush administration who has long called for more active US efforts to weaken the Iranian government, has appended the funding provision to the so-called omnibus spending bill. The provision has already gone through negotiations of a House-Senate conference committee and is due to be formally approved early next week.
A spokesman for Brownback said the Bush administration knew the senator was inserting the provision and did not oppose it.
On Nov. 6, Bush announced that US policy would be geared toward supporting democracy for Middle East countries, but his administration's policy on Iran has stopped short of providing direct support for opposition leaders. White House and State Department leaders were unavailable for comment yesterday.
"It is clear from the regime's treatment of its own people that Iran is no democracy," Brownback told a group of Iranian Americans in July, in a speech his office provided to explain his position. "I understand that the State Department's job is diplomacy and the search for common ground. But now is a time for moral clarity, not excuses."
If it is approved by Congress, and then gets President Bush's signature, the provision could spark fierce debate over whether the United States is moving to an official position of supporting the overthrow of the clerics who govern Iran. Recently, the United States has dealt with Iran through a mixture of carrots and sticks, applying diplomatic pressure through European governments to negotiate inspections of Iran's nuclear program.
Under the bill before Congress, the State Department would be granted the approval to use funds for "making grants to educational, humanitarian, and nongovernmental organizations and individuals inside Iran to support the advancement of democracy and human rights in Iran," according to the House-Senate conference committee report.
The US government has approved similar funds, much of it spent by the nonprofit National Endowment for Democracy, to be used in other countries, particularly communist nations during the Cold War and more recently to support democracy movements in China.
Dissident groups have typically used the funds to oppose the regimes in those countries, including beaming unauthorized radio broadcasts calling attention to abuses and seeking a change of government.
But efforts to promote such opposition in Iran -- most recently a Brownback proposal this year to spend $50 million to fund expatriate Iranian radio and television stations broadcasting anti-regime programming -- have failed because of the legal concerns of opening up US coffers to back Iranian opposition groups.
The United States maintains sanctions against Iran that prohibit funds from being spent on Iranian goods and outlaws financial transactions with individuals inside the country. Meanwhile, in an agreement signed in Algiers in 1981, the United States, in naming Switzerland to represent its interests in Iran, pledged not to meddle in the internal affairs of the Iranian regime.
"It would be a significant change," Gary Sick, an Iran specialist at Columbia University and former staff member on the National Security Council in the Carter administration, said of the new program. Past attempts to provide money for Iranian dissidents "never succeeded and for the reason that they were viewed as either illegal or counterproductive," he said.
Other officials and analysts said that while the amount of money in the new bill is relatively small, it would nonetheless signal a more aggressive US stance in relation to Iran, which Bush has called a member of the "axis of evil" for its suspected pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and support of Islamic terrorist groups.
It could also prompt a forceful response from the Iranian government. In 1996, when The New York Times reported that $18 million was slated to be spent on covert activities designed to weaken the regime's grip on power, the Iranian government viewed it as a serious threat and took steps to counter it, according to Sick.
"The Iranians took it very seriously, and they began coming up with countertactics," including fanning anti-American sentiment in the government-controlled media.
It was never revealed whether the covert funds were used.
Brownback and others, however, believe the new money would be well spent. Iranian students launched a series of public protests in recent years, at least in part due to prodemocracy radio broadcasts by Iranians living outside the country.
Still, there remain fissures within the Bush administration on how to proceed with Iran. The State Department, which would receive the money, is believed to be less supportive of taking a more active role to destabilize the regime than the Pentagon, which has held a series of meetings with Iranian dissidents in recent years.
Pentagon officials have met with Reza Pahlavi, the son of the late shah of Iran, and Manucher Ghorbanifar, who came to prominence during the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages affair in the 1980s. Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter W. Rodman met with Hossein Khomeini, Ayatollah Khomeini's grandson who has broken with the ruling clerics, as recently as September.
Due to the State Department's opposition and questions about whether the contacts amount to covert activity that should be the responsibility of the CIA -- if any government agency at all -- the contacts have been curtailed, according to Defense Department officials.
Still, the Bush administration has stepped up its rhetoric against the Iranian regime in recent months, accusing it of seeking to destabilize Iraq and providing safe harbor from high-level members of the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
In his Nov. 6 speech commemorating the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy, the president called for greater urgency in spreading democracy in the Middle East, saying "We've reached another great turning point -- and the resolve we show will shape the next stage of the world democratic movement."