Wednesday, March 15, 2006

U.S. Looks to Toughen Policy Toward Iran

George Gedda, The Associated Press:
As the United States seeks a strong U.N. Security Council statement against Iran because of its nuclear activities, a House committee is weighing legislation that would strengthen America's own policy toward the Islamic republic.

With Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen serving as the chief architect, the Iran Freedom Support Act was introduced more than a year ago. Only now, though, is a somewhat amended version being taken up by the House International Relations Committee, with a session Wednesday morning.

Among other provisions, the legislation would end U.S. economic aid to any country that helped Iran by investing in its energy sector or permitted a private entity to carry out such investment.

A presidential waiver of the aid cutoff is permitted if he considered it to be in the national interest.

The administration strongly opposed the measure initially, and even though it won concessions during lengthy bargaining with sponsors last Friday, it still is withholding its support.

The administration position was outlined in a letter from the State Department's legislative affairs chief, Jeffrey Bergner, to the committee's chairman, Rep. Henry Hyde.

Hyde, R-Ill., originally was opposed but now supports, with reservations, the revised version.

At the United Nations, the Bush administration was meeting resistance from China and Russia to a U.S.-backed proposal that would demand that Iran halt all uranium enrichment. The proposal also asks for a U.N. report within weeks on Iran's progress in answering questions about its nuclear program.

Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., chairwoman of the House International Relations Middle East subcommittee, ruled out on Tuesday further compromise with the administration. READ MORE

"Due to the gravity of the Iran threat, we do not believe it would be beneficial to U.S. national security and foreign policy interests to weaken the legislation," she said.

Sentiment against Iran on Capitol Hill is running high, particularly since the failure of European Union negotiations with Iran on nuclear issues and a comment from Iran's president that Israel should be "wiped off the map."

More than 80 percent of House members are said to support the Iran legislation.

The letter from the State Department's Bergner said the legislation, as it relates to allies, would inhibit the administration's ability "to build and maintain an international consensus to confront Iran's violations collectively."

Specifically, the legislation would "create tensions with countries whose help we need in dealing with Iran and shift the focus away from Iran's actions and spotlight differences between us and our allies," Bergner's letter said.

Legislation approved 10 years ago was designed to discourage energy-related investments in Iran in excess of $20 million. The measure now before the House committee would tighten that law in several ways.

It also would require that existing sanctions against Iran remain in effect until the president could certify to Congress that Iran has dismantled any weapons of mass destruction.

The administration has been attempting to weaken the Iranian regime, recently proposing $75 million to support pro-democracy forces inside Iran, a significant increase over last year's funding.

Ros-Lehtinen's legislation deals with the same issue, authorizing assistance to "peaceful pro-democracy organizations and individuals" that meet certain criteria.