Lawmakers in the House of Representatives have begun a new examination of the effectiveness of U.S. policy toward Iran. A House committee Wednesday looked at a seven-year-old sanctions law aimed at putting pressure on Iran, as well as Libya, by seeking to punish companies that do business in those countries.
The Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) was signed into law by former President Bill Clinton in 1996.
At the time, he called Iran and Libya "the most dangerous supporters of terrorism in the world," and reiterated his support for the law when Congress re-authorized it in 2001.
As originally formulated, the law required the president to impose sanctions on any international company that did $40 million or more in oil or gas business with Iran or Libya, or violated U.N. sanctions in place against Libya.
But Republican Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen says the law has not been enforced and has had little impact on international investment in Iran, which Teheran has used to develop nuclear weapons and support terrorism. She blames most of this on European companies.
"While we are grateful for the help and support of some of our European allies in Operation Iraqi Freedom, they and the other nations whose companies are investing in Iran, must comprehend the threat that that nation poses," she said.
State Department official Anna Borg said Washington tries to ensure that the process of implementing the law makes "the greatest possible contribution to the goal of countering terrorism and weapons threats from Iran and Libya."
Another U.S. official, Philo Dibble, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, pointed out there are signs of changes in attitudes in both countries.
"While there is still much to be done, we see indications that both countries are feeling increasingly pressured," he said. "Both Iran and Libya represent great challenges, but we are making some progress in gaining international cooperation to pressure them to end their destructive policies."
Patrick Clawson, the deputy director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said economic sanctions may be an imperfect tool, but are necessary to maintain pressure on Teheran to end its support of terrorism and pursuit of nuclear weapons.
"Multi-lateral diplomacy has made a lot of progress recently," he said. "But it is very optimistic to think that diplomatic pressure alone is going to lead Iran to reverse its nuclear program."
Mr. Clawson said cooperation from Europe and Japan is essential as part of an overall effort to maintain pressure. But he added this may require the United States to use some strong pressure tactics with its allies.
Roger Robinson, who heads the Conflict Securities Advisory Group, an investment risk analysis firm, said there are more than 200 privately-traded companies with links to Iran, and more than 60 with Libya.
"It's my view that these companies offer critical commercial infrastructure for the governments of Iran, Libya and other terrorist-sponsoring governments," he said.
Mr. Robinson says the sheer volume of foreign investment in Iran, and other countries on the State Department's list of terror-sponsoring states, is significant. One European company's investments in Iran and Libya, he says, are worth about $9 billion.
State Department official Anna Borg told the committee the Bush administration will be reporting to Congress later this year on how effective the Iran-Libya sanctions law has, or has not been.