Friday, December 16, 2005

Influential congresswoman faults Bush on Iran

An influential Republican congresswoman expressed frustration on Friday over President George W. Bush's approach to Iran and said pressure is building for a tougher U.S. policy.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, a Bush loyalist who chairs a House of Representatives subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia, also endorsed a stricter line toward Russia for failing to crack down on Tehran.

"I love President Bush and I support him, but on the issue of Iran, I take great exception to what they have been doing," she said in an interview with Reuters. READ MORE

"There is a growing restlessness at a bipartisan level in the House to get tougher on Iran and I think that that's going to build up even more" when lawmakers are in the home districts in the next two weeks for the holidays, said Ros-Lehtinen, who wants to be the next chair of the House of Representatives International Relations Committee. The panel's current chairman, Illinois Republican Rep. Henry Hyde, is retiring.

The United States and major European nations accuse Iran of developing nuclear weapons under cover of a civilian energy program, a charge Tehran denies.

Aiming to resolve the issue, Britain, France and Germany, with American backing, have been trying to negotiate a compromise with Iran. But the process appears to have reached a stalemate. The so-called EU3 and Iran are to meet next week in another attempt to see if they can make progress.

Concerns about Iran's direction have intensified since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office last June. In recent days, he triggered international condemnation for calling the Holocaust a myth and saying Israel should be "wiped off the map."


Ros-Lehtinen is a co-sponsor of a bill called the Iran Freedom and Support Act of 2005, which would codify existing sanctions, controls and regulations in place against Iran, expand the list of entities that can be sanctioned for doing business with Tehran and authorize $10 million for democracy groups opposed to the Iranian regime.

But the bill, endorsed by more than 300 of 435 lawmakers, has been stalled by the administration, which opposes the legislation while it pursues EU-led diplomacy.

Bush "believes we can keep negotiating with Iran using the EU3 and I believe that that's allowing Iran more time to build up the nuclear arsenal," Ros-Lehtinen said.

"By the time we figure what Iran has been doing, it would already have moved to the point of no return" in terms of nuclear arms capability, she added.

The proposed bill would strengthen Bush's ability to pressure Iran, she said, by discouraging companies from doing business with the Islamic republic, an oil rich country facing a great challenge to develop and provide jobs for a young population.

Ros-Lehtinen said she does not believe the administration has a clear idea of "what they want to do there and what is the end game. ... I am waiting patiently for a coherent Bush policy on Iran."

U.S. and European officials believe Russia has unique leverage with Iran because it is building a nuclear complex there. She said the United States needs to talk tougher with Russia about the need to increase pressure on Iran.