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U.S. to increase effort to promote democracy in Iran, Rice says

WASHINGTON—Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice escalated the U.S. confrontation with Iran on Wednesday, announcing that the Bush administration planned to significantly increase funding to stimulate democracy in the pivotal Middle Eastern country.

Rice, appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the White House would request $75 million in a supplemental budget request to expand broadcasting into Iran, support civic groups such as labor unions and increase U.S. visits by Iranian students. Another $10 million in spending already had been planned.

"The United States will actively confront the policies of this Iranian regime, and at the same time we are going to work to support the aspirations of the Iranian people for freedom in their own country," Rice said.

The remarks by Rice, who called Iran a "strategic challenge" to the United States, signaled what senior U.S. officials said would be a diplomatic offensive in coming weeks to counter what they see as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's increasingly bellicose behavior.

It remains to be seen whether the proposed democracy funding will have an impact on the Iranian government, which—while unpopular—appears firmly entrenched and has proved adept at playing on Iranians' nationalist sentiments.

Nor is it clear that countries such as China and Russia that have cooperated with U.S. efforts to curb Iran's suspected nuclear-weapons program will join in a broader campaign to pressure Iran and potentially change its government.

Iran resumed enriching uranium for nuclear fuel this week in defiance of demands by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

More broadly, Ahmadinejad has extended Iran's influence in neighboring Iraq; increased public backing for Islamic groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas that Washington considers terrorist organizations; and, Rice alleged last week, helped fan the flames of anger over publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

Yet with its vast oil resources and political support from much of the developing world, Iran appears hard to influence.

A senior U.S. official said that none of the democracy funds being requested would go to the Mujahedeen Khalq, or MEK, an Iranian opposition group that's on the State Department's terrorist list.

The official briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, because Rice already had spoken publicly on Iran policy.

The State Department said $15 million of the money would go to support Iranian labor unions, political organizations and the like, and would be spent inside and outside Iran.

The U.S. government budgeted $3.5 million for similar programs in 2005, but the money was directed to projects outside Iran, partly from fear that the Tehran government would target any Iranian group that was receiving American money.

Another $50 million will be spent to expand television and radio broadcasting into Iran. Officials also are setting up a system to expedite licenses for work in Iran, which are needed because of long-standing U.S. sanctions on the country.

Mehdi Marand, of the Washington-based Council for Democratic Change in Iran, called the announcement welcome. But he called on the administration to go further and remove the MEK from the terrorist list.

Rice plans to visit the Middle East next week, where many Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, are alarmed by Ahmadinejad's aggressive foreign policies.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): RICE

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