A U.S. congressional committee has approved legislation seeking to strengthen existing U.S. sanctions on Iran and put more pressure on Iran's government on the issue of weapons of mass destruction, while providing greater support for Iranian democracy groups.

The Iran Freedom Support Act declares it should be U.S. policy to support human rights and pro-democracy forces in the United States and abroad opposing what it calls the non-democratic government of Iran.

The bill, whose authors say is supported by some 140 House members, was approved Wednesday by the House Middle East Subcommittee chaired by Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. "Iran is the full ticket. It has medium and long-range missile programs, it is believed to have (a) chemical and biological weapons program, it is pursuing nuclear capabilities, it remains the most active state sponsor of terrorism in the world," he said.

The legislation codifies existing sanctions against Iran, under the 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, and includes stricter provisions regarding the waiving of sanctions by the president, and requirements for investigations of suspected investments in Iran.

As before, sanctions would remain until the president certifies Tehran has dismantled weapons of mass destruction programs and commits to combating proliferation of such weapons.

The bill also threatens to withhold foreign assistance from countries investing in Iran's energy sector by defining this as direct support for Iran's regime.

Lawmakers say stronger provisions are aimed at closing loopholes allowing foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies to circumvent penalties regarding investment in Iran.

"The Iran-Libya sanctions has been law although no one has ever been sanctioned under it. Instead, we have a grand bargain with our European and Japanese friends if they will pretend to take our concerns about Iran seriously, we will pretend to enforce our laws. In the meantime, Iran inches ever closer to acquiring a nuclear weapon," said

Congressman Gary Ackerman, the top Democrat on the House Middle East Subcommittee.

The legislation urges, but does not require, U.S. government and other pension funds to divest from existing investments in companies subject to sanctions under the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act and to avoid future investment.

The bill contains mandatory sanctions for persons or entities helping Iran acquire or develop chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons or related technologies, or what it calls destabilizing conventional weapons.

What the United States suspects is Iran's effort to acquire nuclear weapons under the guise of domestic energy development is a key focus.

It urges President Bush to press for a U.N. Security Council resolution requiring Tehran to provide international inspectors unrestricted access to its nuclear facilities, with a threat of further sanctions.

The legislation would authorize funding for groups pressing for democratic reform, human rights, and civil liberties in Iran.

However, it requires that such groups also oppose the use of terrorism, a provision linked to the Iranian opposition group Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, still officially listed by the State Department as a terrorist organization.

Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen cautions there will be strict standards for assistance, adding in her words, it is not that you can just re-invent yourself as a pro-democracy group in order to get funding.

The legislation would also fund independent democracy and radio and television broadcasters for Iran.

The U.S. government finances Radio Farda, which broadcasts to Iran, as well as television and radio broadcasts by the Voice of America's Persian service.

The Iran Freedom Act is likely to be approved by the full House International Relations Committee. Similar Iran legislation is pending in the Senate.

Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen says Bush administration support will be crucial to chances for approval by both houses of Congress.