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07-25-2007, 08:30 AM
US lawmakers unite to demonize Iran


By Khody Akhavi

WASHINGTON - Last Thursday afternoon, in a tightly packed press room of the US Capitol building, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi stood at the podium and smiled heartily as she pointed to two columns of mailboxes stacked behind her.

"Since Iran funds death," she told the crowd, her lobby group - The Israel Project (TIP) - was collecting petitions demanding that economic pressure and sanctions be brought against Iran for its refusal to halt its nuclear program and its alleged continued support for terrorism.

The "threat of Iran" and the need to confront the regime has become a mainstream view in the US legislature, attracting support from Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike.

As the administration of President George W Bush pushes its international allies to back a more rigid sanctions regime against Tehran, lobby groups such as TIP, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the neo-conservative think-tank Center for Security Policy (CSP) have spearheaded a grassroots campaign to divest in companies that do business with countries that the State Department considers state sponsors of terrorism.

"Terror-free investing is an idea whose time has come," wrote Frank Gaffney, president of CSP, in a March op-ed in the Washington Times.

TIP "fights the war of words and images" to provide a "more positive public face of Israel", according to the organization's website. Mizrahi's lobby group may only be three years old, but it has already attracted strong support from high-profile Congress members such as Senators Evan Bayh of Indiana and Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania, both of whom sit on its board of advisers.

TIP's press conference was striking for the strong written statements of support issued by more than 13 presidential candidates, including Democratic Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

"Allowing Iran, a radical theocracy that supports terrorism and openly threatens its neighbors, to acquire nuclear weapons is a risk we cannot take," said Obama in a statement read aloud to reporters. "All nations need to understand that, while Iran's most explicit and intolerable threats are aimed at Israel, its conduct threatens all of us."

Obama recently introduced the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act, one of several bills making its way through Congress that calls for stiffer economic sanctions on Iran's energy industry and countries that do business with Iran.

Clinton said: "We cannot permit Iran to build or acquire nuclear weapons. We must also not let go unanswered its state sponsorship of terrorism. We must not stand silent in the face of brutal repression of women and minorities. And we must not tolerate threats to the existence of Israel."

In her statement, Clinton also plugged her sponsorship of Senate legislation aimed at closing loopholes enabling international corporations to evade sanctions through foreign subsidiaries.

The "Divest Iran" campaign has gained momentum in part as an alternative for lawmakers wary of a direct military confrontation with Iran.

"The record shows diplomacy can be more successful than you think even if they have had a nuclear test," said Republican Congressman Marc Kirk. "There is an elegant policy road that exists for us to bring about a peaceful solution."

Kirk also recently introduced a bill in the House of Representatives aimed at companies and countries that provide gasoline to the Iranian regime, in effect resulting in a "quarantine on gasoline sales".

While Iran is one of the world's largest exporters of crude oil, its refining capacity is severely limited, and the government has been forced to import about 40% of its gasoline from abroad while offering its citizens the highest subsidies on gasoline in the Middle East.

Most lawmakers in attendance preferred the deliberate ambiguity of leaving the military option "on the table" rather than direct military threats, yet they fiercely condemned Iran and questioned the mental stability of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

While the president of Iran exercises nominal power (the de facto head of the executive branch is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei), Ahmadinejad's pronouncements have raised his political profile while drawing heavy international criticism. In the rhetoric of US lawmakers, he is represented as an unstable religious radical who denies the Holocaust (in December 2005 Ahmadinejad was internationally denounced when he called the Holocaust a "myth", a statement that official Iran news agencies deleted from transcripts of the speech in a fruitless attempt at damage control) and is "only a couple deviations away from total insanity", according to Congressman Brad Sherman.

Elliot Engel, a New York congressman who also sits on TIP's board of advisers, said: "This is our Munich. We need to stand up to Iran and tell them they cannot thumb their noses at world opinion."