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Experts Call for Transatlantic Effort to Promote Democratic Change in Iran

A panel of experts has told the U.S. Congress the United States should work with Europe to try to achieve democratic change in Iran the same way it is working with its European allies to try to end Tehran's nuclear program.

Jeff Gedmin, Director of the Aspen Institute Berlin, a non-profit, non-partisan organization for international affairs and transatlantic relations, says the United States should engage its European partners in forging democratic change in Iran. At a Helsinki Commission hearing on Capitol Hill Thursday, Mr. Gedmin said a successful transition to democracy in Iran would make the transatlantic effort to curb Tehran's nuclear ambitions much easier.

"It is going to be easier to convince that decent, accountable government not to want or need the bomb. Number two: that decent, accountable government is going to be far, far less likely to lie and conceal and cheat, as this regime has done. And if we got to that moment and this democratic and decent accountable government wanted the bomb, acquired the bomb, it is going to be a completely different conversation, and a far better conversation to a see a nuclear Iran under the control of a democratic government rather than the bomb in the hands of the Mullahs," he said.

The Bush administration now supports talks by Britain, Germany and France to try to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions after being skeptical of the effort and threatening sanctions against Tehran. Washington says it will consider tougher measures if the talks fail.

On the issue of forging political change in Iran, Helsinki Commission chairman, Republican Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, says a transatlantic effort toward that end is a good approach. "We must do more to support the Iranian people and a civil society building within that country and I believe that a concerted approach by the U.S. and Europe could be effective and sustainable," he said.

Tehran-born Goli Ameri, co-founder of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution, says such an approach would offer advantages on two fronts: "It is extremely important for the United States and Europe to cooperate closely on supporting a civic society so that, one: Members of the civic society in Iran will not be punished for accepting help from the United States, and two: Fingers will not be pointed at the United States for meddling in the internal affairs of Iran," she said.

Tom Melia, Deputy Executive Director of the non-profit, non-partisan Freedom House, says Congress should appropriate money that could be used by both Americans and Europeans to help mobilize Iranians to change their government. "One idea would be to make more money available, but try to find ways to make it more dispersed so that different kinds of Americans can use it, and so non-Americans can use it to engage with Iranians," he said.

Commission co-chairman, Republican Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey, announced that an amendment has been added to a State Department authorization bill that would provide $110 million to fund the Advanced Democracy Act, which aims to promote democracy in countries around the world, including Iran.

The hearing was held a week before Iran hold presidential elections. The June 17 balloting will choose a successor to the outgoing reformist President Mohammad Khatami, who came to power in 1997 but whose attempts to bring reforms were stifled by hard-line clerics loyal to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Public opinion polls show former President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani leading his seven rivals.

Candidates have to try to appeal to disaffected Iranians who want more freedoms while not alienating conservative religious leaders.

Manda Ervin, founder of the Alliance of Iranian Women, is expecting low turnout at the polls, saying the Iranian people do not believe Mr. Rafsanjani will be able to bring about change. "Hashemi-Rafsanjani has made himself a candidate for the president for the third time, and no doubt he will miraculously be elected by a large number, despite the fact that the elections are boycotted by the people. On the city walls, busses, telephone booths and trees the people spray paint: no to election; yes to referendum or the election has been boycotted by the Iranian people and many other slogans, she said.

If no candidate gains 50 percent of the vote, a run-off between the two with the most votes will be held a week later.