Iran Diplomacy Runs Into Sanctions-Happy US Congress

Congress’s rush to pass new sanctions against Iran ahead of the August recess comes amid an intensified drive to pin the Iranian government to deadly acts of international terrorism and amplified moves by U.S. politicians to demonstrate their support for Mideast ally Israel ahead of the November presidential election.

The push to implement more punitive measures against an increasingly demonized Iran could undermine efforts to resolve the longstanding impasse over Iran’s nuclear program peacefully.

Jamal Abdi, policy director for the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), told IPS that even the mere “threat” of the new sanctions, which will be a combination of two bills passed in December and May by the House of Representatives and the Senate that target Iran’s energy sector and its ability to conduct financial transactions electronically, “have had a negative effect on the Iran nuclear talks and limited the president’s ability to use sanctions as a tool for leverage.”

“When this bill passes, it will further aggravate the chain of escalation between Iran and the U.S., and if it includes ‘economic warfare’ measures on top of those already in place, the Iranians will be inclined to respond with equal escalation,” he said.

A July 25 hearing on Iran’s alleged support for international terrorism saw testimony from expert witnesses recommending that U.S. policy should be focused on gathering international support for holding Iran responsible and weakening its influence in the region.

According to the written testimony of Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “Iran cannot win a conventional war against the West, but it can exact a high price through asymmetric warfare.”

“Exposing Iran’s involvement in international terrorism is now more important than ever, both to deny the group its coveted ‘reasonable deniability’ and to build an international consensus for action against Iran’s support for terrorism,” he wrote.

Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign policy programming at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, wrote in her testimony that “the fall of the house of Assad would be devastating to Iran. So we clearly have an interest in Syria’s future.”

Pletka also claimed that U.S. policy is geared toward “tolerance for Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism” and during her oral statements asked why U.S. officials had not publicly declared that Iran was responsible for a bombing in Bulgaria that killed five Israeli tourists. To date, no evidence has been presented to support that allegation.

Amidst ongoing efforts to tie Iran to international terrorism, the U.S.-led sanctions regime charges ahead. But while the full traditional legislative process has now been bypassed so the pending Iran sanctions can be passed before Friday, the details of the bill in question have been waiting to be finalized for more than half a year.

Republican-spearheaded efforts to include harsher measures have clashed with Democrat-led moves to pass the bill as is, resulting in gridlock until a compromise is reached.

According to an NIAC press document, one such provision, the “Kirk Amendment,” would result in “unintended consequences” that would harm ordinary Iranians such as prohibiting Iranian-American citizens from sending money to family members in Iran and stopping pharmaceutical companies from selling medicines to Iranian hospitals “regardless of whether the Treasury Department granted them a license to do so.”

M.J. Rosenberg, a veteran Israel analyst who worked for years at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), told IPS that Congress is rushing to pass the sanctions because they “promised AIPAC that they would and want to deliver before the election season goes into full swing in September.”

“Sanctions bills seem to originate from Congress, but they actually originate from inside AIPAC,” he said.

Rosenberg, who has been consistently critical of AIPAC and other U.S. Israel lobby groups in his writings and commentary, also said that Iran is at the top of AIPAC’s agenda.

“Look at AIPAC’s conference in the spring. The Iran sanctions issue was AIPAC’s main issue. If you want to show your donors that you are 100% for the cause — the cause being first sanctions and then war with Iran — you have to cosponsor bills and get them passed,” he said.

On July 27, President Barack Obama’s signing into law of the United States-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act of 2012, which gives Israel an additional $70 million in military aid and expands military and civil cooperation, coincided with the presumptive Republican White House Nominee Mitt Romney’s trip to Israel for the foreign-policy focused portion of his campaign.

While in Jerusalem, Romney had a friendly meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and attended a fundraiser that reportedly resulted in more than $1 million in donations from 45 Jewish donors.

According to the AP, billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who has pledged to spend $100 million to defeat President Obama, was seated next Romney at the event and joined in a standing ovation when Romney declared Jerusalem to be the Israeli capital.

Ongoing efforts by the presidential contenders to demonstrate their support for Israel have been described by analysts as an effort to capture a traditionally Democrat-aligned “Jewish vote.”

On July 27, Gallup issued new polling data showing that from June 1-July 26 Jewish registered voters still favored Obama over Romney by 68% to 25%.

Earlier in the year, a survey of more than 1,000 self-identified Jews conducted between late February and early March by the Public Religion Research Institute (PPRI) showed that Jewish voters, who make up only about 2% of the national population but comprise more than that in several key “swing states,” such as Florida, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Illinois, remain largely liberal and Democratic in their political orientation and that U.S. Jews are more concerned about issues such as social justice than foreign policy.

Asked what issue was most important to them in the upcoming election, 51% cited the economy and 15% the growing gap between rich and poor. Only 2% of respondents cited Iran.

The relative lesser importance accorded by respondents to both Israel and Iran is remarkable in light of strenuous efforts over most of the past year by all but one of the Republican presidential candidates, as well as Republican lawmakers in Congress, to drive a wedge between Obama and his Jewish supporters over precisely those two issues.

According to Rosenberg, campaigning to the pro-Israel community is “not about the votes, it’s about money.”

“Adelson is big in the Romney camp and has lots of friends in the Israel community and is trying to pull them away from supporting Democrats by saying he will be tougher on Iran,” he said.

“It’s not about votes, it’s about getting these millionaires and billionaires into your corner,” said Rosenberg. “I would say that about politics in general. Ultimately, money turns into votes. But really, when it comes to the pro-Israel community, it’s strictly about the money.”

(Inter Press Service)