- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 15, 2006

A House committee overwhelmingly approved a bill yesterday that would toughen sanctions on U.S. and foreign companies dealing with Iran, despite Bush administration fears that the bill could complicate diplomatic efforts to halt Tehran’s nuclear-weapons ambitions.

Lawmakers in both parties said the 37-3 vote in the House International Relations Committee reflected both deep distrust of Iran and frustration that both the Clinton and Bush administrations had failed to enforce previous sanctions to avoid offending allies.

“Either the administration will fully enforce the law, or it will have to justify to Congress why strong action against Iran is not taken,” said California Rep. Tom Lantos, the panel’s ranking Democrat.

“Ignoring the law will no longer be an option,” he said.

With intense negotiations under way in the U.N. Security Council over Iran’s nuclear programs, the Bush administration said the bill’s tighter penalties for foreign firms dealing with Iran’s energy sector could undercut U.S. diplomacy.

The bill would “shift the focus from Iran’s actions and spotlight differences between us and our allies,” Jeffrey T. Bergner, assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, wrote in a March 13 letter to the House panel, opposing the bill.

The five permanent members of the Security Council — the United States, France, Britain, Russia and China — held a second day of inconclusive talks on Iran yesterday. The full 15-nation Security Council is to take up the issue today.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican and principal author of the bill, softened some provisions of the original bill over the weekend, but members predicted that the administration still will be uncomfortable with the amended legislation.

Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican, said he shared some of the administration’s concerns and backed the new version of the bill “with reservations.”

“The administration fears, and I think correctly, that the bill would have less impact on the Iranian government than on the allies whose support we seek,” he said.

The bill also drops parallel sanctions on Libya, which voluntarily gave up its nuclear-weapons program in a deal with the United States and Britain at the end of 2003.

With 352 co-sponsors for the House bill and more than 40 for a companion bill in the Senate, the administration faces a difficult battle in modifying the legislation. Committee staffers say the measure could be on the House floor within weeks.

In one key change, the updated bill would force the administration to take action against companies when credible evidence emerges that they have violated the investment limits for Iran set in the bill.

Previously, lawmakers complained, the administration could keep investigations open indefinitely to avoid taking action.

The bill would end U.S. economic aid to any country that helped Iran by investing in its energy sector or permitted a private entity to carry out such investment. The president could waive the provision only if he deemed such action to be in the national interest.

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