By Carol Giacomo, Diplomatic Correspondent
Reuters – American and British diplomats held talks this week on ways to promote democracy in Iran amid concern that Tehran is skillfully exploiting a row over it’s nuclear ambitions to fan anti-Western hostility, U.S. officials said on Wednesday.
The discussions in Washington involved Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, who is coordinating U.S. policy on Iran, and British diplomats who are serving or have served in Tehran, the officials and diplomats told Reuters.
Western powers fear that Iran wants to make a nuclear bomb and the International Atomic Energy Agency voted on Sunday to report it to the Security Council, which can ultimately impose sanctions.
Tehran insists it merely wants to produce electric power.
American and British officials are leaning to the view that the West must create links with Iranians who oppose the Islamic cleric-led government of President Mohammad Ahmadinejad and are receptive to democracy.
"Obviously there is increasing interest both on Capitol Hill and in the administration in seeing what actually could be done to strengthen civil society in Iran," said a British diplomat.
The United States cut diplomatic ties with Iran after the 1979 revolution, but Britain has an embassy in Tehran and encourages development of a civil society through activities like technical assistance and seminars.
U.S. officials, with $10 million to spend this year on promoting democracy in Iran, were interested in "knowing about our experience and working out how it might most effectively spend the funds it has available," the British diplomat said.
President George W. Bush has made spreading democracy, especially in Muslim countries, a centerpiece of his policy.
In his State of the Union speech last week, Bush expressed the hope that one day the United States would be "the closest of friends with a free and democratic Iran," though he did not spell out any concrete initiatives.
Bush’s administration has been divided over just how strongly it should encourage political change in Iran. But in recent weeks it has increased the number of appearances by senior U.S. officials on media, like the BBC Persian service, which broadcast to Iranians.
"There’s been a conscious effort to try to speak directly to the Iranian people and explain what is happening" within the international community on Iran, a senior U.S. official told Reuters. Iran’s government often blocks foreign broadcasts.
U.S. and European officials said they believe most Iranians are unaware of a proposal put forward by Britain, France and Germany that would provide Iran with economic and political benefits if it abandons weapons-related nuclear activities.
Also on Wednesday, Burns discussed Iran in a closed-door session with the Congressional Working Group on Iran.
Republican Rep. Mark Kirk of Illinois said the group urged Burns to consider a quarantine on gas sales to Iran and forgo "lighter" sanctions like withholding visas for Iranian leaders. This would envision Lloyd’s of London lifting insurance contracts on tankers transporting gas to Iran, Kirk said.
Burns did not discuss specific sanctions but was receptive to a suggestion that U.S. satellites be used to support wider and more effective broadcasts to Iran, Kirk added.