In a surprisingly swift move on Thursday night that could have wide-ranging implications, the U.S. Senate passed a bill containing broad unilateral sanctions to punish foreign companies that export gasoline to Iran or help expand its domestic refinery capabilities.
The voice vote came at the eleventh hour before the chamber recessed so legislators could go home to campaign. The bill cannot come before the president to be signed into law until a conference procedure combines it with a similar House bill, the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (IRPSA), passed in October.
The Senate move reveals an administration losing control of even its own party in foreign policy dealings, as U.S. President Barack Obama has tried to maintain engagement with Iran aimed at curbing its nuclear program, which the Islamic Republic insists is for peaceful purposes.
Along with scores of Democrats, who favored the bill over the administration’s objections, the effort was supported by Iran hawks including Republican co-sponsor John Kyl and neoconservative independent Joe Lieberman, and was characterized by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as a shot at Obama.
"If the Obama administration will not take action against this regime, then Congress must," McConnell said.
The administration had raised its issues with the bill in a December letter from Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg to Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, complaining that the bill limited the president’s flexibility.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also made late December comments urging caution in applying broad sanctions that might harm and alienate the struggling Iranian opposition movement, asking instead for sanctions that targeted Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), thought to be responsible for crackdowns against opposition demonstrators.
The contents of the bill require the president to impose the wide-ranging sanctions, restraining the traditional presidential foreign policy waiver to a line-by-line exemption that forces Obama to spend political capital.
However, after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid – beset by a host of political problems from slow economic recovery to stalled health care reform – made it clear that he intended to pursue the bill, the administration dropped its public opposition, perhaps hoping that it could change the bill with amendments or in conference.
But a compromise scuttled amendments in Thursday night’s brief deliberations.
In a dramatic twist reported by ForeignPolicy.com, Republican Senator John McCain tried to introduce an amendment to the bill that would name, shame and sanction specific Iranian human rights violators – a theme that echoes the administration calls for more targeted sanctions.
But McCain dropped his amendments at the behest of Sen. Lieberman. The leadership of both parties was apparently concerned that if amendments were introduced, the process would be slowed and the bill might not come to a vote in time.
And Patrick Disney, the assistant policy director of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), which supports engagement, said that even in conference, it will be difficult to remove the language that binds Obama’s hands.
"I wouldn’t be surprised if they expedited the conference," he told IPS. "I don’t know if they’ll be able to take that part out because it’s the main central architecture of the bills."
The rushed vote with almost no debate came a week before France, which supports sanctions on Iran, is to take the presidency of the United Nations Security Council from China, which has balked at punishing Iran as negotiations are ongoing. Passing the bill as the administration negotiated with the Security Council was viewed as diplomatically problematic.
But Richard Sawaya, the president of USA*Engage, a group that opposes unilateral sanctions, told IPS that passing the bill before or during Security Council negotiations was "a distinction without a difference."
Another aspect of the Dodd bill raising eyebrows is the codification into law of an embargo against Iran imposed by Pres. Bill Clinton in the 1990s. The Dodd bill requires Congress to approve the lifting of the embargo.
Disney of NIAC said that the bill, rather than giving the president more tools for negotiating with Iran, virtually takes the embargo off the table as a U.S. bargaining chip.
"This means that no president can lift the embargo without certifying to Congress that Iran has met a laundry list of demands that no president in his right mind will certify," Disney told IPS.
"All of the things that this bill sought to do, the president had the power to do already," he said. "By Congress passing these bills, it removed the president’s ability to walk things back without Congress."
One of the prime dangers of pursuing such draconian sanctions is that, while Obama’s tentative year-end deadline for negotiations to bear fruit has passed, a slow-paced back and forth between Iranians and the multilateral team including the U.S. is still evolving.
The U.S. has not even responded to the latest Iranian counter-offer for a uranium swap proposal.
The situation is also complicated by the resilient Iranian opposition, which has maintained its struggle against Iran’s hard-line leadership after alleged widespread voter fraud in the June election that re-installed Mahmood Ahmadinejad as Iran’s president.
While the Obama administration has taken a considerably more cautious tone since June – and especially in the subsequent months, as the opposition has refused to cower in the face of a brutal crackdown – hard-liners in Congress appear to be deaf to the fluid realities on the ground in the Islamic Republic.
"I would think the first rule is the physician’s rule, which is ‘do no harm,’" said Sawaya of USA*Engage.
Furthermore, "crippling sanctions," as broad-based gas sanctions are often called, is a potential checklist item on a path to military confrontation with Iran. But some think imposing and enforcing the sanctions themselves could be tantamount to war.
"Even half of the people that proposed (gas sanctions) say the only way to really impose that is a naval blockade," said Sawaya. "Well, that’s an act of war!"
In a statement Friday, Debra DeLee, president of Americans for Peace Now, urged that the bill be modified when members of the House and Senate meet to reconcile their respective versions of the legislation.
"The House-Senate conference offers the last chance for Congress to do the right thing here: to amend this bill to make it consistent with a rational approach to Iran, with the national interests of the United States, and with the multilateral approach that is being pursued by the president of the United States," she said.
(Inter Press Service)