The Hill: Key members of Congress are girding to take a tougher line on Iran by tightening sanctions and taking a high-profile stance against the Iranian government.
But despite President Bush’s calls for democratic reform in the Middle East, the administration is urging Congress to hold off on legislation out of concern that it might disrupt sensitive negotiations about Iran’s nuclear program. The Hill
By Geoff Earle
Key members of Congress are girding to take a tougher line on Iran by tightening sanctions and taking a high-profile stance against the Iranian government.
But despite President Bush’s calls for democratic reform in the Middle East, the administration is urging Congress to hold off on legislation out of concern that it might disrupt sensitive negotiations about Iran’s nuclear program.
The momentum for legislative action in Congress has reached such an extent that the administration has begun voicing its concerns to powerful committee chairmen.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) – who does not favor taking up Iran legislation right now – said he has been consulting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other members of the administration on the issue.
“They’re not indicating that would be helpful right now,” he said. “For the moment, we’re trying to work through negotiations, not legislation.”
But with passion on the issue running strong, it is uncertain if members will hold off for more than a few months. A bill by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) on Iran had attracted 263 co-sponsors before the recess – well beyond a majority of 218 needed to pass the House. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), a possible presidential candidate in 2008, has introduced a companion bill that is identical to the version by Ros-Lehtinen.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) recently signed on to the bill, which also has substantial Republican support – including Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.).
“I’m hopeful this is something the majority leader and others will see as consistent with what we’re trying to do in spreading freedom and democracy,” he said.
Some supporters had hoped to act on the bill before the June 17 Iranian presidential elections to put pressure on the regime. Iran’s Guardian Council has barred numerous reformist candidates from running, as it did in parliamentary elections last year.
Iran has become a major foreign-policy concern for the administration, which charges that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program – something the government in Tehran denies.
At last month’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference, Iran was a major topic of discussion. The powerful lobbying group set up a dramatic multimedia presentation arguing that Iran is “pursuing a nuclear weapon” and discussing “how it can be stopped.” AIPAC dispatched 4,500 members to lobby members on the Hill, and they pushed for the Iran legislation along with a handful of other items.
Still, the administration is advocating a go-slow approach in Congress. State Department and National Security Council officials met with staff in Ros-Lehtinen’s office Thursday to discuss her legislation and urge caution, according to sources familiar with the meeting.
“Obviously they had concerns,” one GOP aide said.
According to the aide, members supporting the bill “certainly want to cooperate with the president” and hope to use the legislation as a lever to pressure European allies who are negotiating with Iran.
But, the aide said, “the time is going to come in late July, August, where the evidence is going to continue to mount” that Iran has a nuclear weapons program under way. The aide added, “The members are committed to affording time flexibility to the administration for the time being.”
The International Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia, which Ros-Lehtinen chairs, approved her Iran bill in April. But International Relations Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) has bottled up the bill. Hyde wrote Ros-Lehtinen about the legislation, telling her, “I’m concerned that it would overly constrain the president as he attempts to grapple with a difficult and fast-moving situation in Iran.”
Hyde urged Ros-Lehtinen to afford the president the flexibility to support negotiations with the Europeans – something Bush decided to do on his recent trip to Europe. Ros-Lehtinen also has discussed the issue with Rice.
There have been similar demonstrations of support for Iran legislation in the Senate. The Santorum bill has 25 co-sponsors from across the ideological spectrum, including Sens. George Allen (R-Va.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.). Allen, Bayh and McCain also are considering presidential bids.
Santorum introduced a bill in the last Congress that had stronger language calling for “regime change” in Iran. But that term has fallen out of favor since the invasion of Iraq. Both Santorum and Ros-Lehtinen settled on softer language this year.
Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), another potential 2008 contender, told The Hill that he was drafting his own bill and called Iran “possibly the most pressing foreign-policy issues we’re facing.”
“This is a dangerous regime,” Brownback said, “and they’re not supported by their people.”
McCain said he thought Congress should “speak out” about Iran. But he also called for a coordinated approach with the administration, noting that the Iranian-American diaspora is divided about whether or how aggressively the United States should confront the regime in Tehran.
“I think they’re careful,” McCain said, referring to the Iranian diaspora, “because we know that the majority of the people of Iran wants them to be a nuclear power. So the diaspora wants us to be cautious.”
Asked about legislative efforts to make regime change a U.S. policy in Iran, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) responded, “I’m sorry, but that’s not the way you do things. We all think we’re secretaries of state.”
Ros-Lehtinen’s bill would codify existing optional sanctions on Iran, limit a presidential waiver of the sanctions to six months at a time, authorize the president to withhold aid from countries investing in Iran’s oil industry and authorize the president to provide financial and political assistance to pro-democracy groups opposed to the government of Iran.
Bush said in March that he was glad the United States and European nations were speaking with “one voice” on Iran, and there have been signals since that positions have been coalescing. The British, French and Germans have been conducting the negotiations with Iran in Geneva, and the United States has dropped its objection to Iran’s joining the World Trade Organization. Meanwhile, the Europeans have said they will refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council if Iran carries out its threat to resume nuclear fuel enrichment. Bush said yesterday that the negotiations seemed to be making progress.
But congressional sentiment runs strongly against the regime in Tehran, which took power in a 1979 revolution and the State Department has listed the country as a sponsor of terrorism. If the administration presses too hard against legislation, it could face a reaction from critics inside and outside Congress.
“Syria and Iran are ripe for revolution, and the dictators know it,” Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute wrote in a recent article for National Review Online. “The revolutionaries are looking to Washington for clear and material support. They are not getting it today.”