U.S. lawmakers have introduced a new package of unilateral sanctions targeting Iran that would challenge U.S. President Obama’s discretionary authority to enforce such sanctions and would impose comprehensive restrictions on foreign entities that ship, refine or provide any other related services to Iran’s energy sector.
Both versions of the bills in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, which have bipartisan support, would effectively translate into a de-facto international embargo on all of Iran’s oil, petroleum and natural gas exports, according to analysts here.
If passed, the new round of legislation will be without the multilateral consensus on sanctioning Iran for its nuclear program that the Obama administration secured at the U.N. last year.
"While our sanctions have made it more difficult for Iran to acquire the knowledge and materials it needs to achieve its nuclear goals, we must fully enforce all sanctions and hold people, companies, and governments accountable for doing business with the regime that poses the most immediate threat to the region’s stability," Robert Menendez, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Wednesday.
With oil prices in the U.S. weighing heavily on the pockets of millions of consumers in an already tight economic climate, enacting a law that would place an embargo on Iranian oil and gas exports may have a destabilizing effect on global prices.
"These new proposals are being sold to lawmakers as merely closing loopholes in existing Iran sanctions. But if they read the bill, they’ll find out it actually imposes an oil embargo on Iran that could raise gas prices and threaten the U.S. economy, not to mention cause humanitarian suffering in Iran," Jamal Abdi, policy director at the National Iranian American Council, told IPS.
"Even lawmakers who haven’t batted an eye at the prospect of hurting ordinary Iranians will have to ask themselves – does Congress really want to start punishing ordinary Americans in the name of Iran sanctions now too?" Abdi added.
With the world’s third largest proven oil reserves and the second largest gas reserves, Iran produces around five percent of the world’s total crude oil.
On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department imposed new sanctions on seven foreign companies that have conducted business with Iran – the first major action taken by the Obama administration since the law authorizing sanctions on Iran’s refined petroleum products was passed last year – which comes after an announcement that the U.S. will ease restrictions on Iranian citizens applying for student visas.
In a similar move, the European Union leveled sanctions against an additional 100 foreign companies on Tuesday.
According to the State Department, refined petroleum products imported to Iran have dropped by as much as 60 percent in past months due to the 2010 sanctions law – to meet domestic demand before the sanctions, one-third of Iran’s total consumption of refined petroleum was imported – and the Iranian government has forgone millions of dollars in export revenues as businesses convert facilities for domestic petrol production to compensate for the lost imports.
"By imposing these sanctions, we’re sending a clear message to companies around the world: Those who continue to irresponsibly support Iran’s energy sector or help facilitate Iran’s efforts to evade U.S. sanctions will face significant consequences," Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg said Wednesday.
Under current law, the president has the authority to waive sanctions on Iran on a case-by-case basis if it is considered to be in the national interest, but one version of the new sanctioning legislation would allow the president to waive sanctions only if the "failure to exercise such waiver authority would pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the vital national security interests of the United States."
The new bills include strong language about human rights abuses in Iran: they would require establishing a strategy to improve Internet freedoms and access in Iran, and sanction businesses that provide any materials to the Iranian government that could be used for domestic oppression.
However, one section of the House bill would arbitrarily designate all individuals working in specific Iranian government institutions as human rights violators.
"The purpose of the human rights sanctions is to spotlight abuses, not to sanction the entire country and hold investigations to prove what is going on," Jamal Abdi said.
The latest discussion over sanctions on Iran comes on the heels of a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which included a speech to a joint-session of the U.S. Congress.
"When I last stood here, I spoke of the consequences of Iran developing nuclear weapons. Now time is running out, the hinge of history may soon turn, for the greatest danger of all could soon be upon us: a militant Islamic regime armed with nuclear weapons," Netanyahu told U.S. lawmakers, referring to his previous address to a joint-session in 1996.
In light of Netanyahu’s visit and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual meeting in Washington last weekend, some Republican members of Congress took the opportunity to underscore their interpretation of what the U.S.-Israeli alliance should mean.
Earlier this week, Republican Congressman Louie Gohmert reintroduced a resolution that, if passed, would express Congress’s support "for the State of Israel’s right to defend Israeli sovereignty" and for Israel to use "all means necessary to confront and eliminate nuclear threats posed by the Islamic Republic of Iran."
The resolution, which includes 44 Republican co-sponsors, hardly reflects the Obama administration’s careful avoidance of using controversial rhetoric to incite an armed confrontation.
"When we’re talking about preventing war with Iran, the fact that this is right out of the Iraq playbook is something we need to look at," Jamal Abdi added, citing the hard-hitting sanctions placed on Iraq that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi citizens in the lead up to the 2003 U.S. invasion.
The bills are scheduled for Congressional committee markups in late summer, which may revise bill’s language as it now stands.
(Inter Press Service)