WASHINGTON – Ignoring White House objections, a Republican-controlled House panel overwhelmingly approved legislation Wednesday to tighten sanctions against Iran.
The 37-3 vote of the House International Relations Committee reflected deep hostility toward Iran's Islamic regime and the specter that Tehran may some day acquire nuclear weapons.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., who sponsored the bill, praised the panel vote.
"We must immediately use all available political and economic means to hold Iran accountable for its nuclear, biological, chemical, and missile weapons programs, as well as for its state-sponsorship of terror," she said in a statement.
Among other provisions, the legislation 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 would be authorized to waive the provision if he deemed such action to be in the national interest.
The administration said it could not support the legislation, contending that it would limit the flexibility needed to pursue a diplomatic solution to the stalemate over Iran's nuclear program.
Committee chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., voted for the bill even though he said he had reservations about provisions that threaten to punish allies that do business with Iran. He called that approach "divisive."
Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., the committee's ranking Democrat, said persuasion won't work with Iran. "We can only hope to inflict such severe economic pain on Tehran that it would starve the leadership of the resources they need to fund a costly nuclear program," he said.
More than 350 of the House's 435 members are said to support the bill. The fate of a similar bill introduced in the Senate is uncertain.
The administration position was outlined in a letter to Hyde from the State Department's legislative affairs chief, Jeffrey Bergner, who said the legislation would inhibit the administration's ability "to build and maintain an international consensus to confront Iran's violations collectively."
He said the legislation would "create tensions with countries whose help we need in dealing with Iran and shift the focus away from Iran's actions and spotlight differences between us and our allies."
The committee's deliberations took place against a background of administration efforts to persuade Russia and China to support a proposed U.N. Security Council resolution that demands that Iran end its uranium enrichment program. The resolution was introduced by Britain and France.
Legislation approved 10 years ago was designed to discourage energy-related investments in Iran and Libya in excess of $20 million. In light of Libya's decision in 2003 to surrender its nuclear weapons program, the bill now before the House would strike all penalties against Libya and focus solely on Iraq.
The legislation authorizes assistance to "peaceful pro-democracy organizations and individuals" in Iran that meet certain criteria.
Feeding the strong sentiment in support of the legislation have been a series of statements by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, including one in which he said that Israel must be "wiped off the map."
The administration, perhaps sensing the deep hostility toward Iran on Capitol Hill, has been stepping up its campaign against the Mullah-led government. Last month, it called for a steep increase to $75 million in efforts to promote democracy in Iran.