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    Middle East
     Jul 20, 2007
Double edge to US sanctions bid on Iran
By Khody Akhavi

WASHINGTON - As the United States and its allies in the United Nations plan to push for stiffer economic sanctions on Iran over its refusal to halt its nuclear program, an Iran sanctions bill making its way through Congress includes several key measures that may threaten US diplomacy toward Tehran and split key allies on the issue, including Russia.

The Iran Counter Proliferation Act of 2007 (HR 1400), introduced by Democrat Tom Lantos in March, aims to increase economic



pressure on Iran by eliminating President George W Bush's ability to waive sanctions against foreign companies that invest in the country's energy industry. The bill would also restrict US nuclear cooperation with countries such as Russia that assist Iran's nuclear and weapons programs.

"Our goal must be zero foreign investment - let me repeat this, zero foreign investment - in Iran's energy sector. That is the only formula that can prevent Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons," said Lantos in statement released by the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, which he chairs.

But critics argue that the bill jeopardizes Russian-US cooperation at a time when Washington needs Moscow's support to confront Iran on the international stage.

"Any deterioration of cooperation with Moscow in this sphere could ultimately diminish successful US-Russian collaboration in the effort to secure and dismantle weapons of mass destruction and their associated infrastructure in former Soviet Union states," according to a statement by Israel Policy Forum, a Zionist peace group based in Washington. "The Russian issue does not belong in this bill."

While maintaining a powerful position - and veto power - on the UN Security Council, Russia has cultivated close ties with Tehran, building a nuclear power plant near Iran's southern port of Bushehr. In February, Russian officials confirmed that Russia had delivered more than US$700 million worth of air-defense systems to help protect Iran's nuclear sites from attack, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

"We don't think Iran should feel itself encircled by enemies," Russian President Vladimir Putin told the Arab satellite news station Al-Jazeera. "The Iranian people and the Iranian leadership should feel they have friends in the world."

Relations between Washington and Moscow are already strained over US plans for a missile-defense system in former Soviet-bloc countries in eastern Europe. Washington says the system is meant to protect Europe from a possible Iranian nuclear missile strike, but Russia says the US system is aimed at its nuclear arsenal.

In 2006, Congress withheld 60% of US foreign aid assistance to Russia because of its continued assistance to Iran's nuclear and ballistic missiles programs.

Russian politicians also expressed dismay over the proposed bill, arguing that "both the letter and spirit" of it are in conflict with international law. "It cannot but cause disappointment and regret, because this bill requests that Russia stop all assistance to Iran and that it does not supply Iran with any improved conventional arms or missiles," Konstantin Kosachev, head of the State Duma's (parliament's) Committee for International Affairs, told the Russian news agency Interfax.

The legislation would also reimpose import sanctions on certain Iranian exports to the United States, such as foodstuffs and Persian carpets, and call for the Bush administration to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a terrorist organization.

The IRGC, established by the late ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as a parallel force to the military during Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979, has been accused by the US of training Lebanon's Hezbollah, supplying Shi'ite militias in Iraq and participating in insurgent attacks on US troops.

The IRGC's leadership is so politically and financially powerful that any Iranian leader is likely to demand that the US repeal that provision as a precondition for negotiations on the nuclear issue.

The Bush administration has been rhetorically steadfast in its opposition to Iran's nuclear aspirations, and has continually emphasized its desire to see "regime change" in Iran.

"The world has spoken and said, 'You know, no nuclear-weapons programs.' And yet [Iran is] constantly ignoring the demands," Bush said during a recent news conference. "My view is that we need to strengthen our sanctions regime."

HR 1400 is just one of several bills in Congress and state legislatures to respond to a grassroots campaign calling for divestment in companies that do business with countries that the State Department considers state sponsors of terrorism.

In the past year, state lawmakers in California, Missouri, Florida and New Jersey have introduced bills that specifically seek to ban investment in Iran's oil and natural-gas infrastructure. The "terror-free" investment movement - spearheaded by the neo-conservative think-tank Center for Security Policy - aims to force mutual funds, pension funds and endowments to pull their investments from international companies that do business with Iran.

The divestment effort has also gained attention because of the involvement of pro-Israel interest groups. The "Divest Iran" campaign was one of the main messages delivered at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee convention in Washington in March.

Yet officials within the State Department appear resistant to any legislation that may undermine the executive branch's power and direction over US foreign policy.

"If the focus of the United States' effort is to sanction our allies and not sanction Iran, that may not be the best way to maintain this very broad international coalition that we have built up since March of 2005," Under Secretary Nicholas Burns told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in March, regarding HR 1400.

Similar sanctions against Iran were recently slipped into a 2008 defense appropriations bill in the Senate, and were met with similar resistance.

"While these proposals are certainly well intended, they could have significant counterproductive policy implications," said Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Robert Kimmitt, during a speech at the Institute for Near East Policy in May.

While the Bush administration appears confident it can persuade countries such as Russia to support stiffer sanctions against Iran, the critical question will be how much congressional legislation will complicate the Bush administration's relationship to key international players and what that will portend for US "diplomacy" toward Iran.

(Inter Press Service)


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(24 hours to 11:59 pm ET, July 18, 2007)

 
 



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