Rice Faces Senate Questions on Middle East Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice testifies Wednesday before a Senate panel and is grilled by Democrats and Republicans about policies in Iraq, Iran and the Palestinian territories. The annual briefing informs Congress on State Department priorities and budget.

Rice Faces Senate Questions on Middle East

Rice Faces Senate Questions on Middle East

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice testifies Wednesday before a Senate panel and is grilled by Democrats and Republicans about policies in Iraq, Iran and the Palestinian territories. The annual briefing informs Congress on State Department priorities and budget.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


I'm Robert Siegel. And we're going to begin this hour up on Capitol Hill, where the hearing rooms were full of interesting and sometimes fiery exchanges. At separate hearings, lawmakers sparred with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff about the response to Hurricane Katrina. They gave a group of internet CEOs an earful about their companies' business with China. And they heard from the Secretary of State about Iran. We'll hear about all of those things through the course of the program.

We're going to begin, though, with Condoleezza Rice. She told senators that the administration plans to step up efforts to promote democracy in Iran as it presses the nuclear issue. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the budget today, Secretary Rice said she'd be asking for $75 million in a supplemental budget request to promote democracy in Iran. She said the money would be used to improve U.S. radio and television broadcasts to the country. Rice, a former Stanford provost and a classical pianist, also plans to bring more Iranian students here.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: We're beginning a new effort to dramatically increase the number of Iranians who can come to study in America, the number of Iranian professionals who wish to visit. I've read that it is forbidden in some quarters to play Beethoven and Mozart in Tehran. We hope that Iranians can play it in New York or in Los Angeles.

KELEMEN: Supports of a regime change policy in Iran have been encouraging the Bush administration to pay more attention to democracy promotion. Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee didn't question Rice on that, but they did raise concerns about other policies in the region. The criticism came from both sides of the aisle, including from Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel.

CHUCK HAGEL: 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.

KELEMEN: And Hagel pointed to another area of concern, the stunning win in recent Palestinian elections of Hamas, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization. Fellow Republican Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island described those results as disastrous and, despite denials from Rice, said he thinks the Bush administration missed opportunities to have a better outcome and to promote peace.

LINCOLN CHAFEE: The whole year of 2005, nothing was done. Nothing was done. Opportunities missed. And now we have a very, very disastrous situation of a terrorist organization winning elections.

KELEMEN: Rice said the U.S. can't be blamed for that, and she repeated that the current U.S. strategy is to warn Hamas that any government it might form must renounce violence and recognize Israel if it wants outside support. Chafee pointed out that it's ironic that the U.S. supported the elections but can't talk to the winner, in this case because Hamas is a designated terrorist organization. Secretary Rice had another testy exchange with California Democrat Barbara Boxer, who accused the Bush administration of having a tin ear.

BARBARA BOXER: This administration was shocked by Hamas, shocked by the election of the Iranian leader, shocked that Iraqis voted for conservative religious parties with ties to Iran instead of secular candidates like Ahmed Chalabi, whose party got not one single vote in the Iraqi parliament. This administration seems to have a tin ear when it comes to the Middle East, and that tin ear is making us less safe.

KELEMEN: Secretary Rice, who did recently acknowledge she was surprised by the victory of Hamas, was put on the defensive.

RICE: When you have dealt with a Middle East that for 60 years had a freedom deficit, it is not surprising that perhaps the best organized parties were extremist parties. But that isn't a reason to despair that elections have happened in the Middle East. It's not a reason to despair that the people of the Middle East have had an opportunity to express themselves.

KELEMEN: Rather, she says, it's a call to work harder to develop civil society and political parties that could, as she put it, occupy the middle. Rice is planning to travel to the Middle East next week, and is likely to bring up some of these issues. She's expected to visit Egypt, despite the concerns she raised in the hearing today about a decision to put off some local elections. Candidates linked to a banned Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, scored well in Egypt's recent parliamentary elections.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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