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Congress presses Russia to end support of Iran missile program

WASHINGTON, Nov. 16 (JTA) – Congress is stepping up pressure on Russia to stop aiding Iran’s ballistic missile program. In a move aimed at containing Iran’s potential to rain terror on Israel and other nations, the House of Representatives has approved a bill that would provide for stronger sanctions against countries, companies or research institutes helping Iran develop ballistic missiles. Sanctions would include eliminating all U.S. assistance for two years. President Clinton has threatened to veto the measure. The administration said the bill would interfere with diplomatic efforts to address the problem of Russian companies aiding Iran. A similar bill pending in the Senate has gained the support of 82 co- sponsors, but will not be taken up until January after Congress returns from its recess. Russia has repeatedly denied charges that it is passing missile know-how to Iran. U.S. and Israeli intelligence reports indicate that with continued help from Russian firms, Tehran could have the ability to launch ballistic missiles equipped with chemical, biological and other warheads capable of reaching Israel and other states in the region within the next year. “If the supply of Russian technology is not stopped, then within a year Iran would become self-sufficient and would be able to create those missiles on its own,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a meeting at Britain’s House of Commons last week. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which undertook an “emergency mobilization” to push the measure through Congress, praised the House’s action. “This is amongst the most timely, vital national security issues calling out for decisive U.S. leadership,” said Howard Kohr, executive director of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby. “Regretfully, diplomacy alone has failed to stop the flow of missile technology to Iran.” The legislation, known as the Iran Missile Proliferation Sanctions Act, requires the president to report within 30 days if there is “credible information” that a country, company or research institute transferred missile goods or technology to Iran. The bill allows the president to waive sanctions for reasons of national security. “It’s now time for the Congress to say enough is enough,” said Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.). “We need to back up our rhetoric on non- proliferation with meaningful action.” Although the White House opposes the bill, Vice President Al Gore told a delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations that the House vote would serve as a useful tool in persuading the Russians to curb missile cooperation with Iran. Congress’ action comes as a Russian gas company, facing extraordinary pressure from Washington, postponed efforts to raise money for its part in a multibillion dollar gas deal with Iran. The Clinton administration had been mulling whether or not to impose sanctions on Gazprom and an American investment bank underwriting the company under a federal law aimed at punishing Iran. The 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, which punishes firms investing more than $20 million in Iran’s energy sector, was intended to curb investments that the U.S. believes would give Iran funds to acquire weapons of mass destruction or promote terrorism. Gazprom, together with the French oil-and-gas company Total and the Malaysian state oil company Petronas, has entered into a $2 billion contract to develop an Iranian offshore gas field.