WASHINGTON, 15 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Rice began the hearing by announcing that the Bush administration wants to spend $75 million to help build democracy in Iran.
"Democratic processes must be supported around the world,” she said. “These are transitional periods in some parts of the world like the Middle East, and the democratic transitions are indeed difficult. But people have to have their voice, and the United States must stand for a principle that democratic processes, no matter how difficult, are always preferable to the false stability of dictatorship."
The secretary of state spoke of helping to make the Iranian people more influential in their own country, and of the continuing effort at the United Nations to keep Tehran from pursuing its nuclear ambitions.
But some senators said they were unimpressed with U.S. efforts -- not only in Iran, but also in neighboring Iraq and in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. One, Senator Barbara Boxer (Democrat, California), said the administration seemed clumsy in its approach to the region.
Boxer cited the surprise by Washington when the militant group Hamas won a majority in the Palestinian parliament, when radical Islamist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president of Iran, and when groups affiliated with Iran won a majority in Iraq.
The senator also accused the administration of being out of touch with the needs of the Iraqi people by resisting calls for some sort of timetable for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.
"Seventy-three percent of Iraqis believe there will be greater cooperation among Iraq's political factions when the United States redeploys,” Boxer said. “So I say to you, if we're in Iraq to help the Iraqi people, then we ought to start listening to the Iraqi people and start a redeployment."
No Help From Republicans
Similar criticism came from Senator Lincoln Chafee (Republican, Rhode Island). Chafee said the Bush administration missed an important opportunity by not postponing last month's Palestinian election, as urged by both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government.
And Senator Chuck Hagel (Republican, Nebraska) told Rice that it appeared that Bush's policies had not been a force for good anywhere in the Middle East -- in Iran, Iraq, or in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Hamas supporters celebrate victory in parliamentary elections in Nablus (epa)
"I don't see, Madame Secretary, how things are getting better. I think things are getting worse. I think they're getting worse in Iraq, I think they're getting worse in Iran. I hope the Hamas development will start to develop in a different direction."
Rice responded that the Bush administration can't be blamed for any of these trouble spots. She said the Hamas victory, while unwanted and unexpected, puts the onus not on the United States, but on the militant group itself.
She said Hamas is now faced with an obligation and a choice. The obligation, she said, is to provide the Palestinian people with the good governance they never got from the previous government, which was dominated by the rival Fatah group.
As for the choice, Rice said Hamas must make the transition from a militia to a purely political party.
"Hamas must recognize the right of Israel to exist, disarm as a militia, and renounce violence because only under those circumstances can there be true international support for the next Palestinian government."
Walking ‘A Fine Line’ On Iran
As for Iran, Rice said it is important for the UN to take stern measures against the government in Tehran in order to demonstrate that there are consequences for what she called its "open defiance of the international community" in pursuing its nuclear program.
Rice said exactly what punishment would be sought for Iran had not yet been worked out. But she stressed that it would be carefully thought out.
"We want to look at the effect on the international community as a whole of any actions that we take -- economies and the like. But we also want to try and not hurt the Iranian people, and so I think you will see us trying to walk a fine line in what actions we take."
Rice stood solidly by the administration's decision not to establish timetables for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. She said there could be no withdrawal until the Iraqis are capable of protecting their country.
So far, Rice said, Iraqi forces are making progress, but she added that it is too early to say when they will be ready to take over security nationwide.