· Congress asked for $75m to fund programme
· Rice to visit Gulf states as nuclear crisis deepens
GuardianThe Bush administration made an emergency request to Congress yesterday for a seven-fold increase in funding to mount the biggest ever propaganda campaign against the Tehran government, in a further sign of the worsening crisis between Iran and the west.
Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, said the $75m (£43m) in extra funds, on top of $10m already allocated for later this year, would be used to broadcast US radio and television programmes into Iran, help pay for Iranians to study in America and support pro-democracy groups inside the country.
Although US officials acknowledge the limitations of such a campaign, the state department is determined to press ahead with measures that include extending the government-run Voice of America's Farsi service from a few hours a day to round-the-clock coverage.
The sudden budget request, which follows an outlay of only $4m over the last two years, is to be accompanied by a diplomatic drive by Ms Rice to discuss Tehran's suspect nuclear weapons programme. She is to begin with a visit to Gulf states. Ms Rice told the Senate foreign affairs committee that Iranian leaders "have now crossed a point where they are in open defiance of the international community".
She added: "The United States will actively confront the aggressive policies of the Iranian regime. At the same time, we will work to support the aspirations of the Iranian people for freedom and democracy in their country."
The US is to increase funds to Iranian non-governmental bodies that promote democracy, human rights and trade unionism. It began funding such bodies last year for the first time since Washington broke off ties with Iran in 1980. A US official said all existing citizens' groups and non-governmental organisations in Iran had been heavily infiltrated by the Tehran government, so the US would seek to help build new dissident networks.
US officials depicted the new pro-democracy spending as just one side of a multi-faceted diplomatic offensive aimed at increasing pressure on Tehran. They said Ms Rice would make Iran a focal point of her talks with Middle East leaders in her tour next week, put it centre-stage at the upcoming G8 meeting in Moscow, and call a meeting of political directors from the Nato alliance in late March or April solely to talk about policy towards Iran.
US propaganda efforts in the Middle East since September 11 have been relatively unsuccessful. Analysts say its Arabic news station al-Hurra (the Free One) is widely regarded with suspicion in the Middle East and has poor listening figures.
The move follows talks in Washington last week with British diplomats specialising in Iran. The Foreign Office yesterday welcomed the US move, noting it meant the continued pursuit of diplomatic means rather than hints of military action.
The Foreign Office funds the BBC World Service, whose Persian service has built a following in Iran. This month Iran began blocking the Persian service website.
A senior US official claimed there was now "a broad degree of concern" in the Middle East and around the world about the recent actions taken by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and that the proposed US offensive had been greeted "very enthusiastically".
The stand-off between Iran and the west worsened on Tuesday when an Iranian official said Tehran had resumed small-scale uranium enrichment, a necessary step towards achieving a nuclear weapons capability.