As Iran appears to move closer to resuming nuclear activities, support has been quietly building in Congress for new US sanctions, including penalties that could affect multinational companies and recipients of US foreign aid.
The legislation would put the US on a more confrontational course than the one pursued by President George W. Bush's administration. Bush has supported European efforts to offer Iran incentives in exchange for abandoning its nuclear program.
Codify, cut aid
More than 200 members of the House of Representatives -- almost half the body -- are co-sponsoring a bill that would tighten and codify existing sanctions, bar subsidiaries of US companies from doing business in Iran and cut foreign aid to countries that have businesses investing in Iran.
Additional lawmakers -- Republicans and Democrats -- are adding their names to the bill every week.
The bill faces big hurdles before becoming law. Support may not be as strong in the Senate, which is considering a more limited version of the bill. Key lawmakers in both chambers could block the legislation. The White House has not taken a position, but generally opposes congressional efforts to steer foreign policy.
"We will have the perennial and traditional battle with the executive branch as to who can have a say on foreign policy initiatives," said Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the House bill's main sponsor and a member of Bush's Republican Party.
But momentum would likely build if Iran carries out its threat to resume some nuclear activities and its talks break down with Britain, France and Germany, which are negotiating on behalf of the EU.
The legislation is expected to get a boost when one of the most influential lobbying groups, the American Israel Political Action Committee, holds its annual meeting in Washington this month. AIPAC has made the bill a high priority.
"It will certainly, along with other things, be part of the agenda when thousands of members of AIPAC go to Capitol Hill" to lobby Congress, said Josh Block, a spokesman for the group.
A pro-business group, the National Foreign Trade Council, is lobbying against the bill, but its president, Bill Reinsch, said "the deck is kind of stacked against us."
"People don't like to have it look like they're voting against something that will stick it to an unpopular country," he said. "So, yeah, we're worried about it."
Washington says Iran's nuclear activities are intended to build a bomb, though Iran says it seeks only to generate electricity. It suspended uranium-enrichment activities in November while it negotiates with the Europeans If the talks fail, the White House would likely look for EU support to take Iran to the UN Security Council, where it could face international sanctions.
Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations said unilateral sanctions imposed by Congress could hurt US-EU cooperation if they penalize European companies doing business in Iran.
He said it would be difficult for Bush to say he supports EU diplomacy, "but we are going to sanction the following British, French and German firms."