Efforts by President Clinton to resolve a 2-year-old trade dispute with Europe over U.S. sanctions on international businesses that invest in Cuba is drawing skepticism from key Republican lawmakers.

"For me to accept this agreement offered by the European Union would be to condone thievery and dishonesty," said Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He said the agreement would still allow European companies to invest in businesses that have assets of U.S. citizens seized by Fidel Castro's government.Clinton also announced Monday that he had decided against imposing sanctions on a consortium led by a French oil company for investing in Iran.

Under the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act, the president can impose sanctions on foreign companies that invest $20 million or more a year in Iran's oil and gas sectors.

The agreement announced in London Monday by Clinton and the 15-nation European Union would ease terms of the 1996 Helms-Burton law, which authorizes U.S. sanctions on international companies that trade with Cuba.

Clinton said he hoped the agreement would win support in Congress - but it had the backing of neither Helms nor Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., the two sponsors of the original law.

Helms called the agreement "a lot of hot air."

The steps announced by Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair would require congressional action.

The European Union has resented what it views as American arrogance in trying to impose its domestic legislation on foreign countries.