WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked Congress yesterday to fund a sweeping initiative to promote democracy inside Iran that would expand satellite broadcasts to enable Washington to ''engage" directly with the Iranian people. The initiative also would lift US restrictions to allow US funding for Iranian trade unions, political dissidents, and nongovernmental organizations.
The new request, which was made yesterday at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Bush's foreign affairs budget, would increase spending on democracy programs for Iran this year from $10 million to $85 million.
Rice announced the initiative as Washington steps up pressure on the hard-line regime in Tehran over its nuclear program, which Washington suspects is geared toward producing a nuclear weapon.
''We find it in our interest now . . . to see if we can't engage the Iranian population," Rice told the senators. ''In some ways, you could argue that they need it even more now because they are being isolated by their own regime."
Senators did not respond to the request, but both Republicans and Democrats peppered Rice with tough questions about the administration's policy of supporting democracy at a time when Islamic hardliners have won elections across the Middle East.
The initiative could be a boon to a New Haven human rights group, the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, which last year received about one-third of the $3.5 million that the State Department spent on promoting democracy in Iran.
Yesterday, a senior State Department official briefing the press on the new effort acknowledged that it will be dangerous for Iranian groups to accept funding from the United States and that activists could be killed or imprisoned for doing so.
The official said the lion's share of the democracy money would therefore go to groups outside Iran that maintain discreet contacts inside the country, but that the State Department was prepared to have direct contact and funding links with eligible groups inside Iran. She said much of the work would go on in secret to protect the identities of Iranian activists.
''We don't have blinders on," she said. ''We don't want to hurt the people we are trying to help."
State Department officials at yesterday's briefing stopped short of calling for regime change in Iran, but talked of a desire to foment internal drives for massive political change, similar to movements in Ukraine and the former Soviet republic of Georgia, where US funds paid for media and civil society outreach. But they said they would not support opposition groups, a limitation that would disqualify many Iranian exile organizations.
Ramesh Setehrrad, president of the National Committee of Women for a Democratic Iran, an advocacy group in Washington, said the administration would have a hard time finding organizations to fund if it rejected the political opposition in exile, most of which is associated with the Mujaheddeen Khalq, which the State Department considers a terrorist organization, or with monarchists associated with the late shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.
''There is nothing left as far as the opposition is concerned," Setehrrad said. She called the move a ''step in the right direction," but said it would be inadequate until Washington decided to openly support the political opposition. Rice's initiative by itself ''will not bring the regime down and will not weaken the regime's grip on power," she said.
Rice's initiative also met skepticism from regional specialists who said that the US democracy initiative could cause some in Iran to feel the United States is meddling in its internal affairs, and inflame nationalist feelings that are already bolstering popular support for Tehran's nuclear program.
''I don't think it will help democracy, and I don't think it will solve the Iran issue," said Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Rice's package for democracy would provide an extra $50 million to broadcast programming into Iran in the hopes that a significant number of Iranians will be able to get it via satellite dishes, which are common despite being banned.
Some of the money would go to expand the Persian-language service of Radio Farda, a joint venture between Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and Radio Liberty, which now runs only four hours per day.
State Department officials have traveled to Los Angeles, home to a large Iranian community and nearly two dozen Persian-language television stations, to vet other groups that could broadcast in Persian, officials said yesterday.
An additional $15 million in funds would go to US organizations that would support Iranian labor unions and civic activities, and to fund Iranian groups.
Another $5 million would expand educational exchanges with Iranian students, and $5 million more would expand efforts to reach out to Iranians with the Internet and instant messaging.
The money represents a significant jump from last year, when the State Department set aside only $3.5 million for democracy promotion in Iran, a small portion of the $48 million that the administration earmarked for its democracy fund. Of that, $1 million went to support the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center.
That center was formed to help create a historical record of human rights abuses in Iran since the 1979 revolution. The group's board of directors includes Owen Fiss, a Yale University professor, and Reza Afshari, a history professor at Pace University in New York.
The new proposal for Iran is far more ambitious, but its impact may be unclear.
Alireza Morovati, CEO of KRSI, a Persian-language radio station, said it is impossible to know how many listeners he has in Iran.
Morovati also said that many of the Persian-language television and radio stations are being jammed by the Iranian regime. He said his station has never received, and has never asked for, US funding in its 17 years of existence.
Yesterday, both Republican and Democratic senators alike grilled Rice on the administration's track record of promoting democracy in the Middle East, after the election of Islamic extremists in Egypt, Iran, and the Palestinian territories.
Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California, had a testy exchange with Rice in which she asked:
''Do you agree that nations throughout the world are electing more negative candidates who run against America?"
''I don't see, Madame Secretary, how things are getting better," said Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican.
''I think things are getting worse. I think they're getting worse in Iraq. I think they're getting worse in Iran."