- The Washington Times - Monday, March 12, 2007

An influential pro-Israel lobby said yesterday it will expand its program to choke off new investment to Iran as a way to pressure the Islamic regime to give up its drive to acquire nuclear weapons.

More than 5,000 delegates to the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) are on Capitol Hill today to press lawmakers to toughen U.S. penalties on companies, banks and nations that trade with Iran.

AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr said the group will also press state pension funds in 10 states to sell their shares in companies doing business in Iran. AIPAC officials said U.S. pension firms have major investments in companies like the French oil giant Total and the British-Dutch company Royal Dutch Shell.

“If the largest state pension funds in this country were to divest from companies with ties to Iran, it would have a crippling effect,” Mr. Kohr said.

Leading Israeli officials, including former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have pushed hard for the anti-Iran investing policy.

Missouri’s state-employees pension fund already has been screened to weed out “terror investments” to Iran, North Korea and other suspect regimes. AIPAC officials say they will target California, Florida and other large state investors in the campaign.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who addressed the throng at the Washington Convention Center right after Vice President Dick Cheney, said the relatively modest sanctions approved by the U.N. Security Council against Iran in December should be tightened.

“The initial sanctions have had an impact,” Mrs. Livni said, “but they must be strengthened and expanded without delay.”

She called Tehran a regional “bully” that had to be confronted.

The five permanent U.N. Security Council members — the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China — and Germany met yesterday in New York for the first day of closed-door negotiations on a new round of sanctions against Iran for refusing to suspend its nuclear programs.

Tehran denies it has a military nuclear program, saying its research efforts are for peaceful, civilian uses.

But U.S. officials say the U.N. sanctions and the threat of being cut off from U.S. financial markets have already led some foreign companies to shun Iran.

Russia, which has resisted U.S. and European pressure for tougher sanctions on Iran in the past, has effectively halted work on a $1 billion nuclear-power plant it is building for Iran in the southern city of Bushehr, citing financing problems.

Atomstroiexport, Russia’s state-owned contractor, announced yesterday in Moscow that the first fuel deliveries, set for later this month, will not be shipped to Bushehr, and a planned September opening of the nuclear plant will not be met. Iran has denied missing payments, and many analysts say the delay reflects Moscow’s growing unease with Iran’s nuclear plans.

Reflecting the group’s political clout, the AIPAC agenda featured an A-list of Washington heavyweights, including the vice president, the majority and minority leaders of both the House of Representatives and Senate, and top Israeli government and opposition figures.

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