Obama Sanctions Strategy Complicated by Congress

President Barack Obama is hoping that relatively quick approval by the U.N. Security Council of a new round of sanctions against Iran will relieve growing pressure on Capitol Hill to take stronger measures against Tehran.

But those hopes are likely to be disappointed after lawmakers return from their Easter recess in two weeks when the powerful "Israel Lobby" is expected to make a major push for the imposition of tough unilateral sanctions which both houses of Congress approved earlier this year. 

The lobby’s efforts to build momentum behind the sanctions push at last week’s annual conference of its most influential organization, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), were largely derailed as a result of the still-unresolved contretemps over U.S. demands that visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu freeze new settlement construction in Arab East Jerusalem. 

Instead of focusing public and Congressional attention on the "existential" dangers posed by a nuclear Iran as had been planned, the conference was consumed instead by what many analysts called the worst crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations in at least two decades. 

But even before the conference closed, the lobby’s more-hawkish constituents — particularly pro-Likud neoconservatives — raised the volume on their demands that Washington take much stronger unilateral action against Tehran, of which the adoption of the toughest possible sanctions was to be the bare minimum. 

"To begin, senior administration officials should stop downplaying the viability of a U.S. or Israeli military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities," wrote Michael Makovsky, foreign policy director of the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) who worked for Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld during George W. Bush’s first term, in the San Francisco Chronicle

Washington should also "beef up (the) U.S. naval presence" in the Gulf and, "(i)f necessary, the U.S. Navy could then blockade Iran to enforce sanctions on gasoline imports passed by both houses of Congress," he urged. 

Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, citing Obama’s repeated declarations that a nuclear Iran was "unacceptable" to the U.S., compared the president’s current alleged passivity to the failure of France and Britain to stop the Nazis from occupying the Rhineland in 1936. 

In fact, the administration appears to have made progress in rallying international support behind a new round of sanctions against Iran since the first of the year, the time set by Obama last May for moving towards sanctions if Iran failed to respond positively to U.S. conditions, especially those related to Tehran’s nuclear program, for improved relations. 

In a press briefing with visiting French President Nicolas Sarkozy Tuesday, Obama expressed hope that a new Security Council sanctions regime "would (be) in place in weeks," rather than months, although he admitted Washington did not yet have "unanimity" among key members. 

In what they depicted as a breakthrough, however, U.S. officials disclosed that China, considered the main obstacle to new U.N. sanctions, had agreed for the first time to consider specific measures during a conference call with senior foreign ministry officials from the so-called P5+1 countries – the five permanent Council members, including the U.S. and China, plus Germany – Wednesday morning. 

U.S. and other western diplomats are also pressing hard on two non-veto-wielding Council members, Turkey and Brazil, both of which have publicly questioned the usefulness of sanctions, to at least abstain on any final vote. 

The administration believes that such a demonstration of unity in the Security Council could well succeed in persuading Tehran to reconsider its refusal until now to accept previous P5+1’s proposals for curbing its nuclear program If not, it would set the stage for even tougher multilateral action later this year. 

Key Congressional leaders, including Democrats, however, are not as optimistic. Some believe that whatever measures are eventually approved by the Security Council, they will fall far short of the "crippling sanctions" that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised last year and that, in their view, would be essential to force a reassessment in Tehran. 

Indeed, in its efforts to rally support for a new sanctions regime, Washington reportedly dropped several key provisions from a draft resolution circulated earlier this month, including sanctions that would deny Iran access to international banking services, capital markets and to international airspace and waters for its commercial trade. 

In order to gain the widest possible consensus, the resolution is expected to be watered down further before it comes to a vote, which the administration hopes could come as early as this month but could well be delayed until June. 

And while the administration has argued for patience in carrying out its strategy of increased multilateral pressure on Iran over the course of the year, many lawmakers want to be seen as doing something, particularly with the approach of the mid-term elections in November when all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate will be up for grabs. 

Republicans, whose views on the Middle East are largely shaped by their pro-Likud neoconservatives and Christian Zionist constituencies, are pressing for the strongest possible sanctions. 

Democrats are torn between their loyalty to Obama on the one hand and their political need for support of Jewish voters and donors — who are widely, if increasingly mistakenly, perceived as backing Netanyahu — on the other. 

Jewish donors, some of whom are reportedly deeply concerned by the recent contretemps between Obama and the Israeli leader, are believed to make up between 25 and 50 percent of the Democratic Party’s major contributors, according to the "Hill" newspaper. 

Both houses have passed legislation that would sanction companies of third countries that do business with Iran, particularly in the energy and telecommunications sectors. The two bills must now be reconciled by a "conference committee", which is likely to meet very soon after the recess ends, before they can be sent to Obama for signature into law. 

The administration is arguing that imposing unilateral sanctions before the Council acts would threaten the multilateral consensus it is building with its European partners to get a strong U.N. resolution. 

"We want to make sure we don’t send wrong messages before we get everyone signed up on what we can achieve internationally," Clinton warned lawmakers recently. 

The administration has also argued that Obama should be given the authority to exempt from punishment any companies from other nations, such as China, that he deems are cooperating with Washington’s Iran policy – a position that has been harshly criticized by Republicans and some Democrats close to AIPAC. 

Moreover, according to the administration, sweeping sanctions of the kind included in the two house bills – as opposed to more-targeted measures aimed at key figures and institutions in the regime, notably the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – could weaken the still-feisty opposition Green Movement. 

If the Council approves new sanctions this month, according to some Congressional staff, Democrats will be more inclined to rally behind the administration’s appeal for patience. But if U.N. action appears unlikely before June, Congress is much more likely to force the issue.

(Inter Press Service)

Read more by Jim Lobe

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.