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Iran: U.S. To Expand Broadcasts To Enrich Political Debate

Washington, 16 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- New U.S.-funded radio services to Iran are expected to begin in a few months but there is fresh debate in Washington over which American radio is best suited to the task.

The U.S. Congress last year designated millions of dollars to expand American broadcasts in Farsi to Iran to encourage pro-democracy elements in the country. The decision now is about to be implemented.

Although there is still some discussion about the proper method to increase these broadcasts, no one in Washington is arguing publicly against the concept.

State Department spokesman James Rubin said yesterday the U.S. wants to provide more detailed, factual reporting on political, social and foreign policy issues concerning Iran.

Rubin told reporters in Washington that an improvement in the breadth of information in the public media in Iran will enrich what he called an "already lively, political debate" there.

Earlier this week, students in Tehran took to the streeets to protest the detention of the popular mayor of the city, Gholamhossein Karbaschi, who was arrested on graft charges. He was released yesterday after the student demonstration.

U.S. officials view the incident as part of a larger and continuing struggle of Iranian moderates, who elected President Mohammad Khatami in a surprise victory last May, against conservatives allied with hardline clerics who have dominated Iranian political life for some 20 years.

Many U.S. politicians saw in Khatami's election a hopeful sign of changing times that could lead to a thaw between the U.S. and Iran and break a stalemate on a variety of troubling foreign policy problems in the Middle East.

The new radio broadcasts are intended to accelerate this process. But there are some differences of opinion on tactics between the Republican-dominated U.S. Congress and the executive branch, controlled by the Democratic Party.

The legislation enacted in November designates $4 million -- the estimated annual operating costs of the new service -- for "surrogate broadcasting" to Iran.

That is the term Washington uses to describe Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty's role as an alternative home broadcaster. RFE/RL programs traditionally focus on local issues and international news of local interest to fill the void in countries where censorship and authoritarianism block a free flow of information.

But Rubin said Wednesday that "surrogate broadcasting is not the way to go." He said the State Department strongly believes the new Farsi-language broadcasts should be managed by Voice of America, the government-sponsored radio which represents U.S. policies and culture.

VOA currently broadcasts half-hour programs three times a day in Farsi and Rubin said the congressional funds should be used to expand this service.

Senior State Department officials have expressed concern that making RFE/RL responsible for the new broadcasts could be viewed negatively in Tehran and harden anti-American attitudes in a setback for fragile pro-Western sentiment in the country.

Explaining the position, Rubin emphasized "no one should misinterpret this (the Farsi broadcast plan) as an attempt to undermine the Iranian government, or as in any way diluting our very clear position that we are encouraged by the developments in Iran, that we believe the best way to overcome the differences between our countries is to have an authorized and acknowledged dialogue -- and we believe that those differences can be overcome in such a dialogue."

RFE/RL's president, Tom Dine, said Wednesday that "Farsi broadcasts to Iran will not be propaganda in any way, shape or form."

He pointed out that people in northern Iran already receive RFE/RL broadcasts in Azeri, Turkmen and other languages of neighboring countries. RFE/RL broadcasts in 20 languages to the former Soviet Union and central and eastern Europe.

Dine said the new RFE/RL Farsi language service will conform to the highest standards of professional journalism. He said it will present "factual reporting, balanced and objective analyses, and a wide variety of responsible opinions."

Dine said the Farsi broadcasts to Iran are to begin in the fall and eventually provide up to six hours of programming a day.

He said no decision has been made yet on where the service will be based but several locations are under consideration, including Washington, New York and London.

RFE/RL headquarters are in the Czech capital Prague. But Dine said the new service will not be opened anywhere in the Czech Republic.

When the idea was initially discussed, Czechs officials expressed concern about becoming a target for terrorists. Rubin confirmed that the plan for Farsi broadcasts was discussed informally with the Czechs, but stressed that the U.S. never officially asked the Czech government for permission to base the service in Prague.

He said the State Department will continue to discuss the Farsi broadcast plan with U.S. legislators and with the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) to press its view that VOA should be the chosen broadcaster.

The BBG is an independent nine-member panel that has oversight over VOA and RFE/RL and other congressionally funded American broadcasters. It will have the final word on the planned Farsi service.

A BBG official told our correspondent Wednesday that the Board has weighed all views and intends to do what the law asks it to do. The official, who did not wish to be named, said a letter from the BBG will be sent to Congress this week, confirming the allocation of funds for the Farsi service. She said this will complete the bureaucratic process and it will then be possible to formally announce the new broadcast service.