WASHINGTON – Though the Bush administration denies it has any designs on changing Iran's theocracy, members of Congress are planning ways to assist in a possible "regime change."
Movements are afoot in both the House and Senate to pass legislation that would enable the U.S. government to support foreign and domestic pro-democracy groups opposed to the current Islamic republic of Iran.
Aides for Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., said the senator is drafting legislation that would resemble a bill he introduced in the last congressional session, the "Iran Freedom and Support Act." (search) Though the language in the new bill is being worked out, it is expected to echo the prior bill in that it would include financial assistance for opposition groups. The original bill did not make it to the Senate floor.
"By supporting the people of Iran, and through greater outreach to pro-democracy groups, we will hopefully foster a peaceful transition to democracy in Iran," Santorum said in a statement regarding his new proposal. "The bill also notes the futility of working with the Iranian government."
Though no hearings on the issue are currently on any committee schedules, the bill's timing corresponds with comments by President Bush in his inaugural address that the United States is on a mission to assist in democratization abroad. But while the president named Iran — a member of the "axis of evil" and designated state sponsor of terrorism — during his State of the Union address on Wednesday night, he made no suggestions that the United States would take any action against the Islamic regime.
"Iran remains the world's primary state sponsor of terror — pursuing nuclear weapons while depriving its people of the freedom they seek and deserve. We are working with European allies to make clear to the Iranian regime that it must give up its uranium enrichment program and any plutonium re-processing, and end its support for terror. And to the Iranian people, I say tonight: As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you," the president said.
On Thursday, the State Department denied that the administration has any plans to help depose the Muslim clerics who run the country.
"The United States has been very clear. It's officials have been very clear that we do not have a policy of regime change toward Iran. The United States has also been very clear that we support the aspirations of the Iranian people for freedom," he said.
While subtle, the references to the "aspirations of the Iranian people" reinforces widespread speculation that the United States, both covertly and publicly, is putting Iran, which is believed to be well into the development of a nuclear weapons program, on notice.
Publicly, in the House last month, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., and more than 50 bipartisan co-sponsors, introduced the "Iran Freedom Support Act," which would provide, in part, financial assistance to opposition groups.
"I think we need to make sure that the people of Iran who don't support the radicalism of their mullah masters do not wither away and retreat, " Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., co-sponsor of the bill, told FOXNews.com. "There are people, especially among younger people, who fully understand the hypocrisy and utter corruption of the mullah regime. We need to support them."
But some on Capitol Hill are skeptical of the efforts to reform Iran, and suggest that a similar effort — the "Iraq Liberation Act," passed in 1998 and revived before the current war — resulted in U.S. support of exiles like Ahmad Chalabi (search) and the Iraqi National Congress (search). The exiles have been blamed, in part, for providing hyped-up evidence of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction program. Skeptics say they don't want to find out after a heavy investment of cash and lives that Iran wasn't the threat it was being made out to be nor do they want to be bogged down in anything resembling a "quagmire."
"The devil's in the details," said Norm Kurz, communications director for Sen. Joe Biden (search), D-Del., ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and ardent critic of the way the Bush administration handled the war in Iraq.
"Obviously, this is more of the president's 'outline,' in his language, that we need to encourage democracy for people everywhere and encourage liberty — all Americans share that broad vision," said Kurz. "But if we are talking about taking concrete steps to aid dissidents in whatever country, that's going to require a lot of review and also the question of how do we achieve that when we are stretched very thin in Iraq."
Mona Yacoubian, a Middle East expert for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (search), said it is unclear whether the United States has enough credibility in the region to pursue another regime change now, even if it is a non-military one. She said any group seeking to overthrow the dictatorial ayatollahs — who have rendered seemingly moderate President Mohammad Khatami virtually powerless — might not want to have the United States linked to their efforts.
"My gut reaction would be any time an opposition party in that part of world is somehow associated with the United States, its credibility suffers," she said.
Yacoubian said that while a strong underground democracy movement exists, and anti-Americanism is not nearly as high in Iran as it is in places like Saudi Arabia or Egypt, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and reports that the United States may next focus its attention on Iran have not warmed Iranians to the American cause.
But not everybody thinks the Americans would be unwelcome, said Stephen Schwartz, author of "The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror." He said regime change led by the United States in Iraq will no doubt have a domino effect of democracy across the region, beginning with Iran.
"The vocabulary I would use is 'accelerating transition,'" he said. "I believe the success of the Iraq election will be a tremendous encouragement of the reform movement in Iran. The Iranians will say, 'If the Iraqis can have this, why can't we?'"
He said strong reform movements and sympathetic clerics and government officials would be ready for U.S. assistance. "There is a reaction risk if it's not done intelligently or prudently," he added, noting that any regime change would have to be done through Iranian exiles and not military force.
"We cannot have a replay of Iraq for several reasons," he said, noting that military force might very well spark nationalism in Iran, turning the reformers against the United States. "I'm no fan of the hard-line ayatollahs, but they are not hated the way Saddam Hussein was in Iraq."
Another question posed is which opposition group would be eligible for the help. The Mujahhedin e-Khalq (search), which has been fighting in exile against the ayotollahs since 1979, primarily from their base in Iraq, are supported by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (search), also in exile. Lawmakers like Ros-Lehtinen have expressed support for the MEK in the past.
But the MEK remains on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations and is not a favorite of pro-Iranian reformers like Schwartz. "They are a Marxist cult," he charged.
Alireza Jafarzadeh (search), an Iranian-American formally associated with the NCRI, does not agree, and said the MEK should be taken off the terrorist list and given the assistance to overthrow the ayotollahs because they are the only ones with the means to do it.
"Since the Iraq war, the MEK has actually turned over all of its weapons to the U.S. military in Iraq and did not fight the Americans," he said, noting that the MEK has assisted the Americans with intelligence on the border. "I think any serious shift in policy toward Iran, which would include regime change, should review the status of MEK."