Legislation that would strengthen U.S. sanctions on Iran has moved ahead in the U.S. Congress. The Iran Freedom Support Act has the support of more than two-thirds of the House of Representatives.
Approval by the House International Relations Committee virtually assures swift passage when the Iran Freedom Support Act comes to a vote in the full House.
The legislation would effectively replace a law called the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act approved by Congress in 1996, and extended for five years in 2001 by President Bush.
The new law recognizes changes in Libya's policies, notably its decision to scrap its weapons of mass destruction programs as well as developments regarding Iran's nuclear efforts.
"The weight of American sanctions will now be focused solely on Iran, because the mullahs in Tehran continue to pursue their nuclear ambitions," said Congressman Tom Lantos. "The message to Tehran is simple: follow the Libya model and we in Congress are prepared to open a new and much happier chapter in U.S.-Iranian relations."
The legislation would authorize President Bush to impose sanctions against international companies or nations investing more than $20 million in Iran's energy sector.
President Bush would have the power to waive sanctions in the interest of national security.
Progress of the bill, first introduced last year, was delayed as its sponsors negotiated with the Bush administration, which still has not agreed to support it.
Though he supports it, Congressman Henry Hyde worries that punishing foreign governments could hurt efforts to maintain a broad international coalition opposing Iran's nuclear efforts.
"To successfully deter the Iranian regime the opposition must truly be global," he said. "By threatening tough sanctions, not against Iran but against third parties who invest in Iran's petroleum industry, [the bill] targets our allies. The approach is divisive and understandably our allies have resisted."
Even with recent changes, the State Department says the legislation would make it harder for Washington to maintain an international consensus on Iran.
Rather than trying to force further amendments, Congressman Robert Wexler urges the Bush administration to use the legislation in its efforts to strengthen global support.
"And use this bill as a part of their diplomatic effort in a positive way so that they can increase the opportunity to bring in countries like Indonesia and others that have been neutral and use this as an opportunity to increase their ability to make the multinational effort successful," he said.
Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the bill's chief sponsor, says the legislation will send a clear message to Tehran.
"We are presenting this bill as an effective tool to use regarding Iran's nuclear ambition which presents a true threat to our national security," she said.
"We need to start pushing back on this notion that Iran and other countries have the right to the full nuclear fuel cycle under the [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] leaving them steps away from possessing nuclear weapons," said Ed Royce, a California Republican.
The Bush administration, which has proposed a $75 million program to support democracy activists in and outside Iran, has cautioned Congress against any sanctions that would hurt the Iranian people.
Although it authorizes increased U.S. funding for democracy activists, the Iran Freedom Support Act does not explicitly call for regime change in Iran.