With the death toll mounting in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian "road map" plan in tatters, the Bush administration and Congress want to put out other Middle East fires before they get out of control.
Administration officials and lawmakers recently launched initiatives to sanction Syria and Iran for links to terrorist organizations and plans to develop and obtain weapons of mass destruction. Lawmakers also have focused on Saudi Arabia, accusing it of supporting Hamas and other terrorist groups. Officially, the Bush administration regards the kingdom as an ally in the war on terrorism.
The United States has been keeping an eye on these three countries for years, but attention on them has increased in the wake of U.S. military action against Iraq.
"I think it’s all wrapped up with the Iraq war and concern about the riffraff of the world assembling in Iraq to attack American forces," said Edward Walker, a former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. Walker said some Bush administration officials want to take severe actions against Iran and Syria, including new sanctions made possible by the Patriot Act, passed over Sept. 11, 2001. The new actions could include cutting sources of funding for the three countries and their interests in the United States.
Lawmakers are already highlighting their concerns in Congress. A number of congressional hearings last week produced dire predictions about Iranian and Syrian capabilities and what could be the result if the United States fails to act.
Israeli and U.S. legislators said Wednesday during a committee hearing that Iran could be "weeks away" from achieving nuclear-weapon capabilities.
"If not efficiently tackled, in one year from now we may face a new world, a very dangerous Middle East and a very dangerous world," said Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Knesset’s foreign affairs and defense committee.
Pressure on Syria has been mounting as well. John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, told a House subcommittee Tuesday that Syria is a dual threat because of its support of terrorist groups and the possibility that Syria could arm the groups.
"While there is currently no information indicating that the Syrian Government has transferred [Weapons of Mass Destruction] to terrorist organizations or would permit such groups to acquire them, Syria’s ties to numerous terrorist groups underlie the reasons for our continued anxiety," Bolton said.
Bolton also appeared to soften Bush administration opposition to the Syria Accountability Act — legislation backed by pro-Israel groups that would sanction Syria for harboring terrorists, seeking nuclear weapons and occupying Lebanon.
Bolton said Tuesday that the administration has no position on the legislation. The White House had previously claimed the legislation would tie up the administration’s hands in foreign policy. Sources say the State Department is using support for the sanctions act as leverage in discussions with Syrian officials.
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) sent a letter to Bush on Tuesday calling for the United States to downgrade relations with Syria.
"Unless Syria changes its policies, no United States ambassador should be sent to Damascus, and the president should refuse to accept the credentials of any proposed Syrian ambassador to the United States," Ackerman wrote.
Walker said unilateral U.S. sanctions on Iran and Syria would have little effect.
"We already have unilateral sanctions against both countries, and it hasn’t really stopped them," said Walker, now president of the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank. "Sanctions will only hurt American companies."
In Saudi Arabia’s case, the Bush administration and lawmakers remain miles apart. Lawmakers emphasize the link between the Saudis and terrorist organizations, including Al-Qaeda; the Bush administration says Saudis are aiding the fight against terrorism.
The New York Times reported Wednesday that American law enforcement officials estimate that 50 percent of Hamas’ budget comes from people in Saudi Arabia.
The Bush administration dismissed the report.
"The Saudi government has committed to ensuring that no Saudi government funds go to Hamas," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. "We know that private donations from people in Saudi Arabia to Hamas are very difficult to track and stop, and we continue to work closely with Saudi officials to offer expertise and information that can assist them in that regard."