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Senator asks $50M to aid Iran dissidents

By
MARK BENJAMIN and ELI LAKE

WASHINGTON, April 8 (UPI) -- A leading member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans to introduce legislation Wednesday authorizing $50 million a year to aid democratic activists inside Iran seeking a peaceful end to that country's regime.

A copy of an amendment to be offered by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kansas, obtained by United Press International, says, "It shall be the policy of the United States to support efforts to achieve democratic reform inside Iran, including support for the thousands of protesters who have expressed a desire for the government to hold a referendum vote that could permit Iran to move toward a secular, democratic government that respects human rights and does not seek to possess weapons of mass destruction."

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The senator plans to attach the legislation to a bill authorizing next year's foreign assistance budget for the State Department.

Andy Fisher, a spokesman for Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind., said Lugar supports efforts to establish a friendly democracy in Iran. It is unclear if Lugar supports the proposal.

"There is an opportunity in Iran to make some differences and take advantage of dramatic demographic shifts in the country," Fisher said.

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A spokeswoman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee told UPI her organization supports the amendment.

The move comes at a critical moment in U.S. relations with the Islamic world. President Bush in his 2002 State of the Union address identified Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea, as part of an "axis of evil."

As the United States moves to mop up resistance in Baghdad, the Bush administration is hoping to confront the twin challenges of installing a new government there and convincing the Islamic world the invasion of Iraq does not signal a new era of American occupation in the region.

Last month, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld threatened to treat Iranian proxies that moved into Iraq as enemy combatants in Operation Iraqi Freedom. On March 24, U.S. intelligence issued a report detailing minutes of the Islamic Republic's National Security Council where the leadership of the country decided on a strategy to send in irregular fighting units to five large Iraqi cities.

In Iranian local elections earlier this year, few Persians took to the polls, with voter turnout in the single digits. Iranian students, union workers and intellectuals have intermittently over the past year taken to the streets in the capital and large cities demanding a political referendum on the current regime.

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While Iranians are allowed to vote for the president, they may not elect the country's supreme leader who oversees Iran's military and security services and appoints religious clerics as judges for the courts.

Under Brownback's proposed legislation, the State Department would allocate $50 million annually to an Iran Democracy Foundation. The purpose of the foundation is to support "pro-democracy broadcasting to Iran," such as the satellite television and radio stations based in Los Angeles that many Iranians watch and listen to already; support training for the Iranian-American community to reach out to Iranian dissidents; and fund human rights and civil society groups working inside Iran.

The proposal is very similar to ideas proposed last June by Pentagon staffers in the Bush administration's Iran policy review discussions. But consensus was never reached inside the government.

The amendment does not call for regime change per se, but it does state, "Democratic change within Iran would contribute greatly to increasing the stability of the entire region and would serve as a beacon to the people of Iraq and Saudi Arabia to also seek democratic reform from within."

This language in the amendment is very similar to the Iraq Liberation Act, which Congress passed in 1998. That legislation first enshrined regime change as an open policy goal for the United States in Iraq. Sen. Brownback was an early supporter and author of the legislation.

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