The House Democratic leadership has effectively shelved a resolution calling for what critics say would amount to a naval blockade of Iran because of concerns that it could provoke another war, officials on Capitol Hill said.
Even though the document would not be a law but a “statement of policy” aimed at preventing Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, the Democratic leadership is worried that it could be viewed by the Bush administration as a green light to use military force against Iran, officials said.
Howard L. Berman, California Democrat and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he has concerns about the current text and will not bring it before the committee until those issues are addressed. That, in effect, blocks the document from reaching the floor.
“If Congress is to make a statement of policy, it should encompass a strategy on how to gain consensus on multilateral sanctions to change Iran’s behavior,” Lynne Weil, a spokeswoman for committee, said in reference to Tehran’s defiance of three U.N. Security Council resolutions.
The draft “demands that the president initiate an international effort” that would impose “stringent inspection requirements on all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains and cargo entering or departing Iran.” It would also ban “the export to Iran of all refined petroleum products.”
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who made his annual appearance in New York at the U.N. General Assembly this week, told fellow heads of state that Iran has an “inalienable right” to produce nuclear fuel for peaceful purposes. Tehran denies that it intends to make weapons but has failed to satisfy the concerns of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The nonbinding resolution, which is a top legislative priority of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), also says that “nothing in this resolution shall be construed as an authorization of the use of force against Iran.”
“We’ll resubmit it when Congress comes back, and we’ll have even more signatures,” said Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, New York Democrat and author of the resolution, adding that it now has at least 270 co-sponsors.
“This is a way to avoid war by using diplomatic, political and economic tools,” Mr. Ackerman said.
However, critics argue that, in effect, the resolution would authorize a blockade of the Islamic republic and significantly raise tensions in the Persian Gulf.
“There is language in this resolution that may imply congressional approval of a blockade of Iran,” Rep. Tom Allen, Maine Democrat, said during the summer. “I believe our nation should be engaging in tough diplomatic talks with Iran that will permanently dismantle that country’s nuclear weapons program, and that sanctions should be part of that strategy.”
Mr. Allen and several other members who initially supported the draft have since withdrawn their signatures.
The draft has divided congressional Democrats, some of whom are torn between their support for Israel and concern about Iran’s behavior on one hand, and potentially helping to provoke hostilities with Iran on the other.
It has also prompted aggressive lobbying against the document by Iranian-American groups.
“The division among Democrats is an indication of how the mood on Capitol Hill has changed,” said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council.
AIPAC, which has been lobbying for the resolution’s passage, said the IAEA’s recent report on Iran’s nuclear activities is “alarming” and requires a “strong message” from Congress.
“The vast support for the draft shows that there is bipartisan concern about Iran,” said spokesman Josh Block.
Mr. Ackerman said he was in “discussions” with opponents of the draft to “clarify the language.”
A similar draft has been introduced in the Senate. Although its language appears to be less controversial than the House version, it will not reach the floor either, officials said. The current House legislative session is scheduled to adjourn Friday. The Senate has not set a target date for adjournment.