Congress Begins Pressing Iran Sanctions Legislation

As the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama prepares for a critical series of talks about the fate of Iran’s nuclear program, Congress has begun moving long-pending legislation to impose new unilateral sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

In just the past few days, the Senate approved a measure, already passed by the House of Representatives, that bans companies that sell Iran gasoline from bidding on contracts for the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR).

And the House Thursday approved by an overwhelming 414-6 margin the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act (IRSA) that would permit local and state governments and their pension funds to divest from foreign companies or U.S. subsidiaries with investments of more than 20 million dollars in Iran’s energy sector.

Finally, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Howard Berman, scheduled a vote for Oct. 28 on the long-stalled Iran Petroleum Sanctions Act (IRPSA) bill that would, if passed, impose sanctions on companies that are involved in exporting refined petroleum products to Iran or expanding Tehran’s capacity to produce its own refined products.

Moreover, the House Majority Leader, Rep. Steny Hoyer, pledged that he would push for a floor vote on the measure, which is expected to easily pass the Committee, by early November.

While the bills’ supporters insist they are trying to give Obama more leverage in the upcoming talks with Iran, the administration has itself declined to endorse any of them, suggesting that unilateral sanctions may prove counterproductive both to its "engagement" strategy with Tehran and to lining up international support, even among its European allies, for multilateral sanctions if the negotiations fail to make progress.

"I think we have not reached a judgement as to which [sanctions] might be the most effective," Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Stuart Levey told senators earlier this month when asked about the IRPSA bill.

"In part because, not only do we want to have the impact on the economy, we want to make sure that [the sanction] is going to affect the decision making in Iran and not target the wrong people in Iran and, similarly, to make sure that we maximize the chance of getting international support for these things," he continued. "If we do not have international support, there’ll be diversions."

"Not only is a sanction more effective when they’re (sic) broad-based, but it also takes away the political argument that the Iranian government may try to make, which that this is American hostility," added Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg at the same hearing.

Both men suggested that sanctions affecting the general population could actually strengthen popular support for the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad whose credibility at home was badly damaged by June’s disputed election and its violent aftermath.

The renewed drive for unilateral sanctions comes just days before two critical tests of Iran’s willingness to follow through on agreements in principle reached between it and the so-called P5+1 – the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, including the U.S. and Germany – at their meeting in Geneva Oct. 1.

On Monday, the P5+1 will meet at the Vienna headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to work out the technical details of a plan under which Tehran would ship out most of the low-enriched uranium (LEU) it has produced over the last several years to Russia and France for reprocessing into fuel for a small reactor that makes isotopes for nuclear medicines.

In his testimony, Steinberg said actual shipment of the LEU by Tehran would be considered by the administration to be "tangible sign of progress."

Iran has also agreed to grant IAEA inspectors full access Oct. 25 to a newly disclosed nuclear enrichment plant near Qom to ensure that it is being built for civilian purposes only. Assuming the inspection goes smoothly, the P5+1 and Iran are expected to hold a second high-level meeting in early November at which additional confidence-building measures are to be agreed.

While senior administration officials, notably Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have spoken in favor of imposing "crippling sanctions" as a source of pressure on Iran, they have also made clear that negotiations should be given a chance and that, in any event, multilateral sanctions, hopefully approved by the Security Council, were much preferable to unilateral ones.

"In the absence of any significant progress, we will be seeking to rally international opinion behind additional sanctions," Clinton said this week in Moscow.

Last May, Obama himself said he would wait until the end of the year to assess whether the negotiations track was making sufficient progress to continue his engagement policy or to adopt a more punitive approach.

And while the administration has not endorsed any of the unilateral measures pending before Congress, it has been consulting intensively in recent weeks with its western allies and other powers about what kinds of multilateral sanctions would be most effective if talks broke down.

While the Israeli government, which has described Iran’s nuclear program as an "existential threat" to the Jewish state, has said it backs Obama’s engagement strategy, the so-called "Israel Lobby" here, led by the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), has been pushing hard to advance sanctions legislation swiftly through Congress.

In applauding passage of the divestment bill this week, AIPAC stressed that "Iran’s continued defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding immediate suspension of Tehran’s nuclear fuel work …calls for concerted and forceful sanctions to compel (it) to change its behavior."

"For diplomacy to succeed, we must provide our diplomats more tools for their diplomatic toolbox," said Republican Rep. Mark Kirk, an IRPSA co-sponsor and a top recipient of campaign funds from political action committees closely linked to AIPAC.

"The Iran Sanctions Enabling Act is a good first step – but it cannot be the last," he said, urging the Democratic leadership to bring IRPSA to the floor "for immediate consideration."

Americans for Peace Now, however, denounced the sanctions push, arguing that "efforts to move them now would appear to be poorly timed, conflicting with the Obama administration’s current engagement strategy, which for now puts the emphasis on diplomacy rather than additional sanctions."

Even Berman, the IRPSA’s chief Democratic co-sponsor, indicated that he had strong reservations about the moving the bill now, insisting in an unusual statement that it was only "the fourth best option to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons capability."

"My first preference is to resolve the nuclear issue through diplomatic means, and I strongly support the Obama administration’s efforts to engage Iran," he said.

"Should engagement not yield the desired results within a very short time, then my second preference would be tough, hard-hitting multilateral sanctions endorsed by the U.N. Security Council," he added. "If those are not possible to obtain, then the third best option is to work with a group of like-minded nations to impose such sanctions."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.