Members of Congress this week are examining U.S. policy toward key countries in the Middle East against the backdrop of continuing challenges to the U.S. military occupation of Iraq.
With terrorist attacks in Iraq continuing, many lawmakers are concerned about the attitudes of Syria and Iran, and are debating how the United States should handle relations with Damascus and Teheran in the continuing war on terror.
In recent weeks, Congress has sent some clear messages to certain governments about what lawmakers believe they should be doing to help the United States stabilize Iraq and assist the war on terror.
In the case of Syria, the House of Representatives left little doubt where it stood. Members voted overwhelmingly to approve legislation that would require President Bush to impose a range of sanctions if Damascus does not stop supporting terrorist organizations, and fails to prevent armed fighters from crossing into Iraq.
Republicans joined Democrats in supporting the Syria sanctions bill.
"Times have changed, and the heightened sanctions in this bill are just the beginning," said Tom DeLay, the Republican majority leader in the House. "Congress will be watching Syria's every move, and responding accordingly."
The sanctions legislation will be debated and likely approved by the Senate in November. This week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee holds a hearing on U.S. relations with Syria. On Tuesday, that same committee heard testimony on Iran from administration officials and experts.
"Clearly, I think Iran will make a vibrant, open, democratic society with quite a contribution to the world once it throws off the tyranny that sits on top of it," said Republican Senator Sam Brownback, a key supporter of democratic transition in Iran.
At the hearing, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said Iran remains "the leading supporter of terrorism." When asked by one senator if the United States should consider providing more economic aid to Tehran, he said, "The Iranians have been caught out, they have been caught lying, and hiding the ball several times, most recently during a visit of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) when some traces of highly enriched uranium were found that gave [the] lie to all the things, many of the things, the Iranians were saying. So, my own view is that we are the United States, we are not like everybody else and we need to be very cautious and careful when we make decisions about economic assistance, etc."
Amid intensified concern about foreign terrorist involvement in Iraq, President Bush was asked during a White House news conference Tuesday why, in one reporter's words, Syria and Iran are "not being held accountable."
"Well, we're working closely with those countries to let them know that we expect them to enforce borders, prevent people from coming across borders, if in fact we catch them doing that," said Mr. Bush.
Several months ago, amid mounting concern about Iranian nuclear efforts and Russian assistance to Teheran, former House lawmaker Lee Hamilton suggested what he called a broader, but flexible and conditional, engagement with Iran.
"We could take initial steps that would not be a risk to the national security interests of the United States, with the expectation that Iran would, over time, react positively," he said. "The engagement would obviously be incremental, it would have to be done very cautiously, it would be done step by step, and it would be based on Iranian performance particularly on proliferation but also on terror and reform."
In the House of Representatives, some mostly Democratic lawmakers critical of Iran's support for terrorist groups and suspected nuclear weapons development efforts, continue to push for legislative penalties.
A House-proposed "Iran Freedom and Democracy Support Act" would bar all Iranian imports to the United States. A similar Senate measure would put the United States on record in support of an internationally-monitored referendum in Iran on democracy.
Also the subject of a House hearing this week will be World Bank and IMF lending to Iran. Under existing anti-terrorism legislation, the United States is required to vote against such loans for Iran and other countries on the State Department "sponsors of terrorism" list.
Some House lawmakers complain the Bush administration isn't doing enough to prevent these loans from going through, and say the U.S. should withhold contributions to the World Bank if it continues loans to Iran over U.S. objections.