WASHINGTON – Iran (search)'s hard-line government, accused by the Bush administration of harboring top Al Qaeda (search) members, poses a big problem for the United States and should be replaced, lawmakers said Sunday.
Democrats and Republicans urged extreme care in working toward that end, in order to avoid fomenting an anti-American reaction among Iranians who admire the U.S. way of life.
In Tehran (search), Iran's foreign minister insisted his country does not and would not shelter Al Qaeda terrorists, and even has jailed some members of Usama bin Laden's network and plans to prosecute them.
"Iran has been the pioneer in fighting Al Qaeda terrorists, who have been posing threats to our national interests," Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi told the government's Tehran Television. "Iran was Al Qaeda's enemy before the U.S."
The Washington Post reported Sunday that the administration has cut off contacts with Iran and "appears ready to embrace an aggressive policy of trying to destabilize the Iranian government."
Asked about the report, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said: "No, our policy continues to be the same." The United States insists that Iran stop supporting terrorists and end illicit weapons programs, he said. "Iran knows what it needs to do," he said.
Worry about possible activities of senior Al Qaeda operatives thought to be in Iran was a factor in raising the domestic terror alert level in the United States last week, officials have said. Those operatives are suspected of being connected to the recent bombings in Saudi Arabia and Morocco.
"There's no question but that there have been and are today senior Al Qaeda leaders in Iran, and they are busy," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said last week.
Nonetheless, U.S. officials are finding ways of communicating with Iranian officials "on subjects that are important to us," the State Department said last week.
One issue is Iran's suspected development of nuclear weapons. Washington rejects Iran's contention that its nuclear activities are for peaceful purposes.
Rep. Porter Goss, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Iran has shown some cooperation on terrorism, but not enough.
"The trick in Iran is this: The good guys are trying to bring some reform; the bad guys control the levers of power. Sorting the two apart and then isolating the bad guys and taking the levers of power away from them is what's got to happen," said Goss, R-Fla., on CBS' Face the Nation.
"It's got to happen in a way that does not shut down the reformists or cause repercussions to the reformists. This is hard."
The United States has labeled Iran as an exporter of terrorism since Washington began drawing up such a list in 1979 -- the year the Islamic republic was founded and then sponsored the seizure of the U.S. Embassy. Fifty-two Americans were held hostage for 444 days, and U.S.-Iran relations have remained severed.
Lawmakers in favor of a new government in Iran did not advocate a military solution.
Rep. Jane Harman of California, ranking Democrat on Goss' committee, said she considered Iran "more of a clear and present danger than Iraq last year" but wants a diplomatic focus.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., a Democratic presidential hopeful who strongly backed the Iraq war, said "regime change" is the answer in Iran. He said he was not suggesting U.S. military action because of the pro-American attitudes of many Iranians.
The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee suggested without elaboration that Americans might expect "better cooperation from Iran once the strong signal has gone out" that the United States will not accept weapons of mass destruction there.
"There are efforts being made that would be very productive in regards to Iran and ourselves, with the understanding of the Al Qaeda cell that allegedly came from Iran and had something to do with the Saudi Arabia attacks," Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., told NBC's Meet the Press.
"I think we're going to make some progress on that."
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, vice chairman of that committee, said in a televised interview to expect good news soon from Iran, and that it would be "very foolhardy" to try to destabilize Tehran in expectation of a surge in pro-Americanism.
"I think we have to be a little bit cautious about ... tossing out that term 'destabilize,' 'take over,"' Rockefeller said. "We're getting to think that way too much because of -- after Afghanistan and Iraq."
Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, worried about taking on too much at once, citing the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I'd like to see us finish one job at a time," Biden said.
Iran's top diplomat in the United States, Javad Zarif, said on ABC's This Week that his government was interested in easing tensions with the United States.
"At the same time, if the United States only wants to speak through the language of pressure, then Iran will resist," said Zarif, Iran's ambassador to the United Nations.