- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked Congress last week for an extra $75 million to enhance radio and television broadcasting into Iran and to support pro-democracy forces there. This is welcome and long overdue.

The good news is that the Bush administration has finally understood that talking about freedom is not enough. The United States must devote serious assets to helping pro-democracy forces inside Iran, if there is to be any hope of a long-term resolution to the nuclear crisis with Iran.

The bad news is that, after all these years, the administration still has no plan of how to do it.

State Department bureaucrats last year torpedoed specific grant proposals (including one by the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, which I represent), to help groups inside Iran. They argued helping such groups would be seen by the Tehran regime as a hostile act and would violate the 1981 Algiers Accord that ended the 444-day hostage crisis. Mustn’t make Tehran angry.

Since then, of course, the showdown over Iran’s nuclear weapons programs has intensified, as has the regime’s repression of pro-democracy activists, unpaid miners and striking bus drivers. According to an opposition Web site, Iran Press News, political prisoners were told by their jailers last week “each and every one of you will be put to death” if Iran’s nuclear file is taken to the United Nations Security Council.

Republican Sens. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania have proposed increasing funding for pro-democracy groups in Iran to $10 million this year. But until Miss Rice made her announcement Wednesday, the State Department opposed the Iran Freedom Support Act.

In her testimony, Miss Rice said the State Department now plans to seek $75 million in supplemental funding for 2006 to support democracy in Iran. “That money would enable us to increase our support for democracy and improve our radio broadcasting, begin satellite television broadcasts, increase the contacts between our peoples through expanded fellowships and scholarships for Iranian students, and to bolster our public diplomacy efforts,” she said.

All this sounds encouraging, until you realize the only part of this program with substance are existing Persian language broadcasts by the Voice of America and by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. And these broadcasts are problematic.

While the Voice of America has tremendous talent, and has made serious efforts over the last year to expand its programming in Persian and make it more professional, its charter does not allow it to actively subvert foreign governments. And that is precisely what we need in Iran.

In addition, VOA is turning away from radio programming to more expensive television broadcasts, which it intends to “simulcast” over its old radio frequencies.

The problem here is Iran’s poverty. Despite fabulous oil revenues, the World Bank estimates Iran’s per capital income is around $2,000 per year. The audiences we need to reach do not all have access to television. And periodically, the regime conducts massive seizures of satellite dishes, which are illegal.

We need more radio, especially shortwave, and programming geared to informing the Iranian people just how corrupt and brutal are their leaders, and that teaches them the mechanics of political organizing and non-violent protest.

In principle, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty could do this. But its Persian service, Radio Farda (“tomorrow”), has become an open object of ridicule to Iranians. Established in 1997, it became known as “Radio Khatami,” because it openly supported the “reformist” regime of the previous Iranian president, Mohammad Khatami. More recently, it has become irrelevant, playing Britney Spears and other nonentities in hopes of attracting a younger audience, while splicing in just 10 minutes of political programming each hour.

Miss Rice seems to grasp the problem. As she testified to Congress last week, a team of State Department officials was visiting Iranian-American broadcasters in Los Angeles to assess which programs might be worthy of U.S. support.

We need to shut down Radio Farda, help VOA produce quality radio programs in addition to TV talk shows, and hand over more money to Iranian broadcasters in Los Angeles and elsewhere who have their finger on the pulse of Iran’s people.

The real question was avoided by the State Department last year: What type programs should the U.S. support inside Iran? And are we prepared for Tehran’s angry response, which could come in the form of a large number of small suicide packages?

The pro-democracy groups are out there. And they are champing at the bit. They know what to do and can’t wait to get started.

Kenneth R. Timmerman is president of Middle East Data Project, Inc. and author of “Countdown to Crisis: The Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran.”

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