- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation Wednesday that would increase U.S. support for Iranian dissidents and impose new sanctions on companies that aid the ruling regime.

The Iran Human Rights and Democracy Promotion Act is co-sponsored by Sens. Mark Kirk, Illinois Republican, and Kirsten E. Gillibrand, New York Democrat, and Reps. Robert J. Dold, Illinois Republican, and Theodore E. Deutch, Florida Democrat.

Their bill would make it U.S. policy to support Iranian dissidents and would sanction companies that sell the regime water cannons, sniper rifles and other tools of mass repression.

“In our view, the United States should make the issue of human rights a fundamental pillar of our international diplomacy with regard to Iran,” said Mr. Kirk at a news conference, flanked by Mr. Dold and Mr. Deutch.

Iran’s support for international terrorism and defiance of the U.N. Security Council are byproducts of a dictatorship that denies its own people the basic human rights we Americans take for granted,” Mr. Kirk said.

The Kirk-Gillibrand version of the legislation also would create a “special representative on human rights and democracy in Iran.”

The bill is likely to be combined with other legislative initiatives on Iran in coming weeks.

President Obama initially was reluctant to strongly back Iranian dissidents during the protests that followed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed 2009 re-election, saying he feared the regime would use any rhetorical support to paint the protesters as American pawns.

He has toughened his rhetoric in recent months as hopes for engagement with the regime over its nuclear program have dimmed.

“For nearly two years, there has been a campaign of intimidation and abuse,” Mr. Obama said in March in his annual Persian New Year message to the Iranian people. “Young and old, men and women, rich and poor - the Iranian people have been persecuted. Hundreds of prisoners of conscience are in jail. The innocent have gone missing. Journalists have been silenced. Women tortured. Children sentenced to death.”

He and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also have criticized the regime for its “hypocrisy” in celebrating the popular revolutions across the region.

In an interview with The Washington Times, Mr. Kirk said the president could take bolder action.

“The president authorized to surge to Afghanistan and the mission to take out [Osama] bin Laden, but on Iran, things have been weaker,” he said. “And so everything is being overshadowed by the bin Laden mission, but my hope is that we return the focus to what is probably the No. 1 danger in the Middle East, which is Iran.”

He called the legislation “a bipartisan nudge in the right direction,” adding that he is “pretty disappointed” with the administration’s enforcement of current sanctions on banks and oil companies that deal with Iran.