U.S. Campaign Is Aimed at Iran's Leaders

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By Peter Baker and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 13, 2006

As the dispute over its nuclear program arrives at the U.N. Security Council today, Iran has vaulted to the front of the U.S. national security agenda amid Bush administration plans for a sustained campaign against the ayatollahs of Tehran.

President Bush and his team have been huddling in closed-door meetings on Iran, summoning scholars for advice, investing in opposition activities, creating an Iran office in Washington and opening listening posts abroad dedicated to the efforts against Tehran.

The internal administration debate that raged in the first term between those who advocated more engagement with Iran and those who preferred more confrontation appears in the second term to be largely settled in favor of the latter. Although administration officials do not use the term "regime change" in public, that in effect is the goal they outline as they aim to build resistance to the theocracy.

"We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Senate testimony last week. "We do not have a problem with the Iranian people. We want the Iranian people to be free. Our problem is with the Iranian regime."

In private meetings, Bush and his advisers have been more explicit. Members of the Hoover Institution's board of overseers who met with Bush, Vice President Cheney and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley two weeks ago emerged with the impression that the administration has shifted to a more robust policy aimed at the Iranian government.

"The message that we received is that they are in favor of separating the Iranian people from the regime," said Esmail Amid-Hozour, an Iranian American businessman who serves on the Hoover board.

"The upper hand is with those who are pushing regime change rather than those who are advocating more diplomacy," said Richard N. Haass, who as State Department policy planning director in Bush's first term was among those pushing for engagement.

But as the administration gears up, the struggle with Iran remains shadowed by Iraq. The botched intelligence on Saddam Hussein's weapons has left a credibility challenge in convincing the public and the world that the administration is right this time about Iran. After alienating European allies in the rush to war in Iraq, the administration is following a slower, multilateral approach. And with U.S. forces stretched, analysts wonder how feasible a military option would be if it came to that.

The focus on Iran inside the administration lately has been striking. Bush, according to aides, has been spending more time on the issue, and advisers have invited 30 to 40 specialists for consultations in recent months.

In the past week, the State Department created an Iran desk. Last year, only two people in the department worked full time on Iran; now there will be 10. The department is launching more training in the Farsi language and is planning an Iranian career track, which has been difficult without an embassy there.

Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns said in an interview that the department will also add staff in Dubai, which is part of the United Arab Emirates, as well as at other embassies in the vicinity of Iran, all assigned to watch Tehran. He called the new Dubai outpost the "21st century equivalent" of the Riga station in Latvia that monitored the Soviet Union in the 1930s when the United States had no embassy in Moscow.

The administration also has launched a $75 million program to advance democracy in Iran by expanding broadcasting into the country, funding nongovernmental organizations and promoting cultural exchanges. Voice of America broadcasts one hour a day into Iran; by April, that will grow to four hours a day, and the administration plans to go to 24 hours a day. But the administration suffered a setback last week when lawmakers slashed $19 million, mainly from broadcast operations.


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