Support for Syria Bill Grows in Congress

Eyeing Vote, Lawmakers See Go-Ahead Signal From White House

By Ori Nir

Published September 26, 2003, issue of September 26, 2003.
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WASHINGTON — Congressional support is mounting for tougher action against Syria and Iran, as the White House insists that both countries are attempting to develop weapons of mass destruction.

The new congressional push for sanctions comes after senior Bush administration officials testified last week that Iran already has the ability to build crude biological warheads for its ballistic missiles and that Syria is “most aggressively” developing chemical and biological weapons. “What we have heard about the WMD programs of both Syria and Iran is alarming, and people here are eager to take action,” said a staffer on the House of Representatives International Relations Committee.

Congressional supporters of the Syria Accountability Act, a measure that would require the president to impose sanctions if Damascus fails to meet several requirements, say they are close to bringing the bill up for a vote. Until recently, White House officials had said that adopting such legislation might hinder the administration’s pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace, the reconstruction efforts in Iraq and the overall war on terrorism. But last week John Bolton, under secretary of state for arms control and international security, told a House subcommittee that Bush and his foreign policy advisers “do not have a position on the bill.” This followed Secretary of State Colin Powell’s statement the week before, in which he said that Syria was hindering American efforts in Iraq and faced the threat of a sanctions bill if it did not stop.

Supporters said that the administration’s decision not to openly oppose the bill should make it easier to pass the proposed legislation, which requires the president to impose sanctions on Syria if it does not stop supporting terrorism, occupying Lebanon and developing weapons of mass destruction. Majorities in the House and Senate have already signed on as co-sponsors of the measure, but legislators have been waiting for a go-ahead from the White House before bringing the legislation up for a vote.

The administration “went from opposing it to saying ‘we have no position,’” said a spokesman for Rep. Elliot Engel, the New York Democrat who introduced a revised version of the bill earlier this year, along with Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. “We think this change is very significant. We view this as maybe not a green light, but certainly a yellow light.”

Powell warned Syrian President Bashar Assad in May that his uncooperative policy on terrorism may lead to sanctions, but asked Congress to defer action. Now, according to State Department sources, Powell is losing patience with Syria.

Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House International Relations Middle East and Central Asia Subcommittee, is also leading a group of her colleagues in an effort to tighten the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, a 1996 law designed to punish foreign companies that help either Iran or Syria develop their petroleum capabilities. The State Department is now preparing a report on the 1996 law’s effectiveness, which congressmen hope to use as a basis for introducing stiffer trade sanctions.

New details on Iran’s weapons of mass destruction program surfaced last week when the assistant secretary of state for verification and compliance, Paula DeSutter, testified in a special joint hearing before Knesset members and American lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Speaking at a session of the U.S.-Israeli Interparliamentary Commission on National Security, a nonpartisan, bicameral forum of parliamentarians from both countries, DeSutter outlined what the administration says are Iran’s plans to develop nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

DeSutter surprised the American and Israeli legislators by telling them that Iran is already capable of mounting biological warheads on its Shihab-3 missiles. With a range of 800 miles to 930 miles, the intermediate-range ballistic missiles are capable of reaching Israel, as well as American troops stationed throughout the Middle East.

Iran has until the end of October to prove to the International Atomic Energy Agency that it does not have a nuclear weapons program. Teheran insists its nuclear program is for civil energy purposes, but the agency’s recent discovery of weapons-grade enriched uranium is raising suspicions that the Iranians could be using their nuclear plant to produce weapons. Warning that Iran could follow the footsteps of North Korea, DeSutter called upon the international community to help block Tehran’s path to becoming a nuclear power. The State Department official said: “Already faced with North Korea’s brazen disregard for its treaty obligations, the [nuclear nonproliferation treaty] would be undermined still further if Iran were able to disregard its treaty obligations in a similar way.”

Nuclear arms control expert Gary Milhollin, who directs the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, described Iran at the hearing as the “new WMD threat of the Middle East.” He warned that Iran could become a greater nuclear power than North Korea. Siding with Israeli experts, Milhollin said that Teheran could produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon in two years. American intelligence experts believe Iranian scientists would need three years to four years to develop a nuclear weapon.

Meanwhile, Syria’s weapons program was the main topic of testimony supplied by Bolton to the House subcommittee on the Middle East. Bolton said that Syria maintains a robust chemical and biological weapons program and may attempt to develop nuclear weapons.

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