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US Bolsters Diplomatic Forces on Iranian Affairs

The State Department said Friday Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is increasing the number of department officials and diplomats involved in Iranian affairs. Intended to help promote democratic change in Iran, the move is part of a broader restructuring of the State Department by the Secretary.

Officials here say Secretary Rice is setting up a special office to deal with issues concerning Iran, including the stationing of Farsi-speaking U.S. diplomats in several foreign capitals to interact with Iranian exiles, expatriates and others.

The move creating the new Office of Iran Affairs will mean a sizeable increase in the number of U.S. diplomats exclusively devoted to Iranian developments, currently just a two-person desk in a larger grouping of Persian Gulf countries.

The expansion comes in the wake of the Secretary's supplemental budget request last month for $75 million this year to fund increased U.S. radio and television broadcasts to Iran, student exchanges and other programs.

In addition to increasing the State Department's Washington staff dealing with Iran, a regional center will be set up in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates focusing on Iran.

Additional diplomats will be posed in London, Frankfurt, Istanbul and the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, to among other things liaise with Iranian expatriates and non-governmental organizations dealing with Iran.

At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli said the personnel moves are a long-term proposition to deal with a major policy challenge. "Iran is and is going to continue to be a very important country. We need to develop a cadre of foreign service officers who speak Farsi, who understand the region, not just Iran but the region where Iran has influence and reach, and understands Iran. And so that's the logic of putting people out in the field."

The United States has had no formal diplomatic relations with Iran since that country's Islamic Revolution in 1979, when militants took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held diplomats hostage for more than a year.

Diplomats of the two countries have interacted occasionally since then at international conferences and elsewhere, though contacts have all but dried up since hard-line Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office last year.

The United States accuses Iran of being the leading governmental supporter of terrorism, and a backer of extremists trying to sabotage Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

It also accuses Iran, despite denials from Tehran, of having a secret nuclear weapons program. Next week, with strong U.S. support, the International Atomic Energy Agency governing board is expected to refer the Iran nuclear issue to the U.N. Security Council.

Spokesman Ereli said the decisions on Iran are part of Secretary Rice's plan to re-direct U.S. diplomatic priorities abroad, which she calls transformational diplomacy.

Under it, several hundred U.S. diplomatic jobs are to be shifted in coming years from Washington and Europe to Africa, South and East Asia and the Middle East - reflecting post Cold War shifts in global influence, population and economic power.

In December, President Bush launched a related initiative aimed at encouraging American students to acquire critically-needed expertise in languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Hindi and Farsi.