One Step Closer to Unilateral Sanctions Against Iran

Congress has given new momentum to a bill imposing unilateral sanctions on Iran — a move seen by many as an ineffective form of sanctions and potentially antagonistic against valuable U.S. allies on the U.N. Security Council. This comes ahead of the end of the year deadline set by U.S. President Barack Obama for Tehran to respond to a proposed agreement to export most of its enriched uranium for processing in Russia and France.

The Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (IRPSA) will likely pass the House sometime next week and — if the Senate passes its version of the legislation — would expand economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic, restricting U.S. loans that aid Iran’s petroleum industry.

This bill would prevent the Export-Import Bank of the United States, "from providing credit, insurance, or guarantees to any project controlled by any energy producers or refiners that contribute significantly to Iran’s refined petroleum resources," according to the Congressional Research Service.

Critics of the House bill — which is sponsored by Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) — charge that it will: hurt the Iranian people while having little effect on the leadership sanctions are supposed to put pressure on; undermine the Obama administration’s attempts at engagement with Iran under a multilateral negotiating framework; and isolate the U.S. by antagonizing crucial allies in the UN Security Council.

While a House version of the bill has been expected to pass the before the body adjourns later this month, a decision by the Senate to "hotline" the bill — a move, where barring any objections, the bill will be brought to the floor and passed without debate, without amendment, and without a roll-call vote — took many observers by surprise yesterday.

"The way it’s drafted will have significant ripple effects on Export-Import Bank’s ability to co-finance transactions in a number of locations. As far as we can tell congress gave little or no thought to what would happen if this bill was enacted," Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, told IPS.

"We’ve always thought that the way to avoid this type of problem is multilaterally. We support what the president is trying to do," Reinsch continued. "He is trying to engage the Iranians in a dialogue and at the same time build multilateral support for that dialogue and sanctions. The only economic pressure that would have an impact would be multilateral. If you can’t bring Russia and China into the fold it won’t accomplish anything."

Indeed, under the proposed sanctions legislation the U.S. would sanction a number of companies which export gasoline to Iran or buy Iranian imports. These companies would likely include a number of state-owned companies from countries which wield vetoes in the U.N. Security Council.

The possibility that the sanctions legislation would hurt the Obama administration’s attempts at engagement, multilateral negotiations and sanctions, and fail to include some of Iran’s biggest trading partners has left some analysts concerned that if the House and Senate pass their bills the U.S. will ultimately be drawn closer to a confrontation with the Islamic Republic.

"I think that we’ve never seen unilateral sanction on Iran work so the fact that we’re going down this path before the deadline is in my view problematic. It gives the impression we’re dying to go to sanctions," Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, told IPS.

"Even while the Iranian people stood up this past summer and showed a tremendous courage, the sanctions proposed by congress — and even lawmakers admit — will put hardship on the Iranian people. More than anything else it can send the signal that while we say we sympathize with the Iranian people or stand with them it is more empty rhetoric than real substance," Parsi concluded.

American Jewish groups have experienced a split over the Iran sanctions issue as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and J Street — the new "pro-Israel, pro-peace" advocacy group — have endorsed the sanctions legislation.

"Passage of this bill by Congress will highlight for the Iranian Government the choice they must make between one path that leads to further isolation and another that leads to full integration in the international community and the ability to develop their economy to its full potential," said J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami in a statement Monday.

But Americans for Peace Now (APN) split with J Street and AIPAC and denounced the sanctions legislation as, "reflect[ing] a misguided and potentially self-defeating approach for the U.S. to the challenge posed by Iran’s nuclear program.”

"We strongly urge Senators to object to this attempt to short-circuit debate [and potential amendments] and fast-track a piece of complex and far- reaching legislation — legislation that would impact virtually every aspect of and every option for U.S. policy toward Iran now and in the future," said APN in a letter sent to all Senate offices after the move to "hotline’" the sanctions bill was announced yesterday.

"I think that Peace Now’s position is pretty much where the progressive’s are. J Street has its reasons for taking its positions but there isn’t much doubt in my mind that you won’t find more than a tiny percentage of Jewish progressive’s who agree with it. It’s a very controversial position they have," Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America — and former AIPAC staffer — MJ Rosenberg told IPS.

(Inter Press Service)