The US and UK are working on a strategy to promote democratic change in Iran, according to officials who see the joint effort as the start of a new phase in the diplomatic campaign to counter the Islamic republic's nuclear programme without resorting to military intervention.
A newly created Iran Syria Operations Group inside the State Department is co-ordinating the work and reporting to Elizabeth Cheney, the senior US official leading democracy promotion in the broader Middle East.
"Democracy promotion is a rubric to get the Europeans behind a more robust policy without calling it regime change," a former Bush administration official commented.
The new direction, the former official said, reflected a growing belief in the US and UK that diplomacy through the United Nations and partial sanctions were unlikely to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. In the absence of a credible military solution, the argument went that international diplomacy could try to slow down the nuclear programme while more "robust" efforts continued towards the ultimate solution of regime change, he said.
US officials said the British input was important because of the Bush administration's lack of experts on Iran, the legacy of 25 years of frozen diplomatic relations. Some see the UK as having a moderating effect as the US considers whether to fund opposition groups in exile, launch covert activities inside Iran, and/or "independent" satellite television broadcasting in Farsi.
But US officials also detect a hardening of the UK stance in response to the confrontational approach of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, Iran's president.
Seeking to fill the US knowledge gap, the State Department last month set up the Iranian Affairs Office in Washington and announced new diplomatic posts for Farsi speakers. Barbara Leaf, an Arabist, is expected to head the office.
At the same time, the separate Iran Syria Operations Group was established to plot a more aggressive democracy promotion strategy for those two "rogue" states. Funding is to come from $75m that Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state, announced in February she was requesting from Congress this year, plus some $10m already in the budget.
Adam Ereli, a State Department spokesman, denied the operations group existed.
But two other US officials and a European diplomat insisted that it did. They said the inter-agency group, which is supposed to co-ordinate with the Pentagon and other departments, is headed by David Denehy, a special adviser who served in the coalition government in Iraq, and Alberto Fernandez, a public diplomacy official.
Jack Straw, UK foreign secretary, accused Iran of deciding to "take on the international community" through its development of nuclear weapons and support of terrorism in a tough speech on March 13.
Mr Straw said the UK would "not take sides in Iran's internal political debates" and noted that Iranians were "understandably sensitive about any hint of outside interference".
But in language that echoed Ms Rice's testimony to Congress a month earlier, Mr Straw pledged UK support for the democratic "aspirations" of the Iranian people.
He focused on how to give Iranians access to "independent authoritative information" and said governments could help provide this.
The US is planning to increase satellite television programming by Voice of America and may launch a new "independent" network with a prominent Iranian as front-man.
US officials concede, however, that they are not encouraged by their experience in Arabic broadcasting in the wake of the invasion of Iraq.
Serious Iranian opposition politicians are virtually unanimous in saying that foreign funding of activities designed to promote democracy, especially by the US or UK, would be counter-productive.
Ali Akbar Javanfekr, a press adviser to Mr Ahmadi-Nejad, recently said Iranians were "alert" to the "propaganda of enemies", and in general frahi rulers show little concern over existing US broadcasts.
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