WASHINGTON — As 150,000 U.S. troops battle to stabilize Iraq, some officials in the Bush administration are already planning to turn up the heat on another member of the president's axis of evil.
Officials in the White House and the Defense Department are developing plans to increase public criticism of Iran's human rights record, offer stronger backing to exiles and other opponents of Tehran's repressive theocratic government and collect better intelligence on Iran, according to U.S. officials, congressional aides and others.
Iran has embarked on a nuclear program that some specialists fear cannot be prevented from producing an atom bomb; is trying to extend its influence in Iraq and remains a prime sponsor of Hezbollah and other international terrorist groups. U.S. intelligence officials also believe some top lieutenants of Osama bin Laden have sought refuge in Iran.
However, with the U.S. military now stretched thin by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the new campaign may be intended not to build support for military action against Iran, but to pressure Iran to change its behavior so military action isn't necessary.
It's far from clear, however, whether a more aggressive U.S. campaign to condemn the Iranian regime and court pro-Western forces would have any effect. The major Iranian opposition group, the Iraq-based Mujahedeen Khalq (MEK), remains on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist groups, but it's provided much of the intelligence about Iran's weapons programs.
The new, more aggressive tack is said to have the backing of secretary of state-designate Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser.
Among the steps under consideration, the officials said, are stronger public condemnations of Iran's human rights practices and treatment of women; increased U.S. broadcasting into the country; and financial backing for pro-Western groups.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they aren't authorized spokesmen and, in some cases, because final decisions haven't been made.
Rice previewed some of the ideas during a White House meeting last week with leaders of major Jewish-American groups, according to one individual who was present and others who were briefed on the session.
"We have to do more to help the human rights community and the dissidents inside Iran," Rice told the group, according to one participant's notes of the meeting, which also focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
An administration official, asked about Rice's reported comments, said they reflected a "heightened attempt" to expose Iran's behavior. "We're trying to make plain for the international community the strategic challenge that Iran poses," he said.
At the same time, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which overseas U.S. international broadcasting, has proposed to the White House a major increase in broadcasting into Iran by Voice of America television, a U.S. official said.
The proposal, which is expected to win approval, would increase daily broadcasts from 30 minutes a day to about three hours, the official said.
"We expect that the White House will be as supportive of this plan as it was for increasing broadcasting to the Arab world," the official said. He couldn't provide cost estimates for the expansion.
The United States already operates a Persian-language radio service, Radio Farda, which broadcasts to Iran 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
More U.S. broadcasting to Muslim audiences was one of the recommendations of the bipartisan Sept. 11 Commission.
The administration was never able to agree on an Iran policy during Bush's first term. The State Department favored engagement and international action, while officials in the Defense Department and Vice President Cheney's office proposed backing the MEK and considering military action against Iran's nuclear facilities.
How to handle Iran is now shaping up as a major foreign policy issue for Bush's second term. But with the bulk of U.S. combat divisions tied down in neighboring Iraq, the president appears to have no good military options against Iran, which is almost four times larger than Iraq and has nearly three times its neighbor's population.
A limited U.S. air strike on Iran's far-flung nuclear facilities would cause worldwide outrage, could endanger U.S. troops in Iraq and would have no assurance of success. European allies favor diplomacy to curb Iran's nuclear program.
However, top Bush administration officials are now hinting that the White House is eager to start withdrawing troops from Iraq by the middle of next year. One rationale, a senior administration official said, is to give the president greater flexibility in dealing with Iran.
Calls for supporting Iranian dissidents have been fueled by an accelerating takeover of the country's institutions by conservative clerics, ending hopes for reforms backed by President Mohammad Khatami, whose term ends next year.
But while many Iranians, particularly the young, are fed up with their rulers and even pro-American, they're also deeply suspicious of foreign meddling in Iranian politics. Iranians who accept U.S. assistance for democratization are likely to be branded agents of the "Great Satan."
Former assistant secretary of state Lorne Craner said that when Congress made $2 million available in a fiscal 2004 appropriations bill for democratization activities in Iran, "We started looking around for what might be doable. ... It wasn't clear we'd be received warmly in Iran."
But Craner, who left government last year, said that could change if the U.S. government showed it was serious. "When you say you're willing, people start showing up," he said.
The omnibus spending bill passed by Congress last month includes a provision, sponsored by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., for $3 million to promote democracy in Iran.
Some of the funds could be used to stage a conference in the United States that would bring together Iranian dissidents, human rights advocates and nongovernmental organizations.
That approach echoes the actions of the U.S. government toward Iraq during the 1990s, when it helped forge fractious Iraqi dissidents into the Iraqi National Congress. The INC and its leader, Ahmad Chalabi, helped persuade the Bush administration to invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein, but much of the intelligence the INC provided on Iraq's weapons programs and terrorist ties has proved to be wrong.
The Bush administration also is considering adding Iran to a broader U.S.-backed program to promote democracy in the region, known as the Middle East Partnership Initiative.
"We are exploring ways to begin working with groups inside (Iran)," J. Scott Carpenter, the State Department official who runs the program, told the New York Sun newspaper last month.
Carpenter did not return a phone call seeking comment.
(Knight Ridder correspondent John Walcott contributed to this report.)