US President George W Bush found himself battling another diplomatic challenge from congressional opponents as top Democratic lawmakers mulled a precedent-breaking visit to arch rival Iran. Bush’s spokeswoman said it was “troubling” that the legislators, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, would consider breaking the administration’s taboo on direct diplomatic dealings with the Islamic government in Tehran.
The two nations have not held diplomatic relations since 1980.
“On a day when the US military reports additional evidence of Iran’s meddling in Iraq with weapons and training that are being used to kill our soldiers, its troubling that some Democrats are making travel arrangements to visit Tehran,” said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.
She spoke after Democratic Representative Tom Lantos, who accompanied Pelosi to meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over White House objections last week, said he was ready to go to Tehran and suggested the speaker was as well.
“Speaking just for myself, I’m ready to go,” Lantos told reporters late Tuesday. “And knowing the speaker, I think she might be.”
Pelosi, also at the press conference, did not contradict Lantos.
She also noted that Lantos, the chairman of the important House Foreign Affairs Committee, had called for dialogue with the Islamic republic.
“I think that speaks volumes about the importance of dialogue,” she said.
The White House last week repeatedly blasted Pelosi’s trip to Syria while muting criticism of visits to Damascus by several of Bush’s Republican allies.
Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice argue that such overtures to Syria and Iran simply encourage “bad behavior”, including the two countries’ support for anti-US insurgents in Iraq as well as for militants in Lebanon and the Palestinian areas.
The administration has offered to join multi-party negotiations with Iran only if Tehran first complies with UN demands to freeze its uranium enrichment program.
Rice has also not ruled out meeting her Iranian counterpart on the sidelines of an Iraq conference next month, but only to discuss efforts to stabilize that war-ravaged nation.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Pelosi had not informed the department of any plans to visit Iran, an act he said “would certainly be a departure from 27 years of past practice.”
But he noted that US foreign policy is carried out by Bush and his executive branch and not the Democratic-controlled Congress.
“I don’t think that there’s any confusion on the part of the American people or of the international system as to who is responsible for the formulation of foreign policy as well as its execution,” he said.
The Bush administration has been under intense pressure for months to engage with both Syria and Iran as part of efforts to end the sectarian bloodshed in Iraq.
The administration has inched in that direction in recent weeks by agreeing to attend an Iraq “neighbors conferences” alongside Syrian and Iranian officials and sending a senior State Department official to Damascus last month to discuss the issue of Iraqi refugees.
Bush also broke with past policy by authorizing direct contacts between US and North Korean diplomats in January that paved the way for a landmark deal the following month on ending Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.