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Iran's Role in Iraq, Nuclear Ambitions, Debated in US Congress

Iran's de-stabilizing role in Iraq, as well as concerns about Iranian nuclear development, were key topics in congressional hearings on Thursday. VOA's Dan Robinson reports from Capitol Hill.

Iran was the subject not only in House and Senate hearings on President Bush's military surge plan for Iraq, but in the first public session of the now Democrat-controlled House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

The new chairman, California Congressman Tom Lantos, is one of the sharpest critics of Iran, based on what he calls its unrelenting pursuit of nuclear weapons, support of terrorism, and the Iranian president's anti-semitic statements and threats against Israel.

However, Lantos continues to assert that dialogue is a tool the Bush administration needs to use with what he calls an increasingly confident, and arrogant, Iranian government. "We should pursue dialogue with Iran even as we deploy other diplomatic tools to achieve our goals of suspending and ultimately ending Iran's nuclear program," he said.

Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen points to Iran's role in continuing violence in Iraq. "Iran's support for these extremist groups is a major factor in the sectarian strike and attacks that are taking place daily in Iraq," she said.

Former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, Thomas Pickering, says though there is no assurance diplomacy can make a difference on the Iranian nuclear issue, it is preferable to the option of military force.

One possible course, he suggests, would be an international agreement with Tehran that would allow it to have a full civil nuclear program without enrichment or reprocessing.

In return, he says, the U.S. would have to make this important compromise. "In return, I hope that the U.S. would be willing, in the respect of such an arrangement, to set aside the use of force and regime change as part of U.S. policy," he said.

Pickering adds the U.S. should make these compromises only after a fully acceptable nuclear agreement is achieved.

In separate testimony, former CIA Director James Woolsey reiterated his pessimism about chances for dialogue with Tehran. "I think the chance, quite frankly, of halting the Iranian regime's nuclear weapons program is about as close to zero as matters come in international relations," he said.

Woolsey asserts that the only course that may be left is to pursue a policy of regime change, a step Congress has not taken.

With both Iran and Syria denouncing President Bush's decision to send more troops to Iraq, debate continues in Congress about suggestions the U.S. engage those countries on ways to stop violence in Iraq.

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice repeated the administration's opposition to such engagement, which was recommended by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group in December.

However, in a news conference Thursday a new member of Congress, Democrat Joe Sestak, believes neither Iran nor Syria want to see Iraq spiral out of control.

"We must step back and have Syria and Iran come to the table, as significant players in the region, who do not, contrary to many expectations have an interest once we are out of that country but still in the region, having that country spiral down into even more of a quagmire," he said.

The freshman Democratic lawmaker says Iran and Syria would gain nothing from chaos in Iraq, adding U.S. willingness to talk to regional powers would be a sign of strength rather than weakness.