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US Officials Face Tough Questions from Lawmakers on Iran Policy


Bush administration officials defended U.S. policy toward Iran before skeptical members of the U.S. Senate Thursday. Lawmakers questioned the effectiveness of U.S. and international diplomatic efforts aimed at pressuring Tehran to stop enriching uranium. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

Two State Department officials told members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that the Bush administration approach to Iran will yield success.

That approach involves a dual-track strategy to escalate pressure on Tehran through the United Nations Security Council and unilateral economic sanctions to abandon any nuclear weapons programs, while offering political, economic, technological and other incentives.

"We are confident that our current approach, working in concert with the international community on nuclear and other issues, will move us toward peaceful resolution of the problems posed by Iran," said Jeffrey Feltman, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs.

But two lawmakers, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California and Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, believe the United States should engage in direct talks with Iran without preconditions.

"Only by talking, and bringing to bear the best efforts of diplomacy, can real progress be made," said Senator Feinstein.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said the United States is willing to talk with top Iranian officials, but only after Tehran suspends its uranium enrichment activities.

Senator Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican, agrees with that approach, and would even expand the preconditions. Noting that the Bush administration has accused an elite unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps of training and arming Shi'ite insurgents in Iraq, Coleman called on Tehran to stop such support.

"As a precondition for us to have a fruitful conversation, we would like you to step back from supplying weapons that are killing our soldiers," he said.

Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, suggested tougher international sanctions could help further pressure Iran.

"We have three United Nations resolutions on sanctioning, which are not effective, obviously, since we continue to see enrichment," he said. "If we are not going to push for more sanctions, then what we have said is that we in fact are going to allow enrichment to continue."

But Patricia McNerney, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation, disagreed.

"At a minimum, these sanctions are limiting Iran's access to sensitive technologies and goods, with the possible impact of slowing Iran's nuclear and missile ambitions," she said. "These sanctions are also impairing their ability to access international financial systems to fund its weapons program and terrorist activities and to secure investment for its strategic sectors."

The United States and its western allies have accused Iran of secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons. Iran says it is enriching uranium only for civilian purposes.

On a separate matter, Senator Coburn called for more oversight over the U.S.-funded VOA Persian Service, which, he said, has delivered broadcast that have been slanted in favor of the Iranian government.

He said the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees U.S. government international broadcasting, is not aware of the contents of the programs because no one on the board speaks Farsi.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Feltman says Secretary Rice has been in contact with officials of the Broadcasting Board about the matter.

VOA management has defended the Persian broadcasts as balanced, accurate and objective, and says the radio and television programs give equal airing of opposing views.

Senator Coburn called on the State Department to provide Congress with translations of the Persian Service broadcasts.

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