WASHINGTON - As the administration of United States President Barack Obama
prepares for a critical series of talks about the fate of Iran's nuclear
program, the US 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 US Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
And the House on Thursday approved by an overwhelming 414-6 margin the Iran
Sanctions Enabling Act that would permit local and state governments and their
pension funds to divest from
foreign companies or US subsidiaries with investments of more than US$20
million in Iran's energy sector.
Finally, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative
Howard Berman, scheduled a vote for October 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, Representative 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
"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 Mahmud
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 "Iran Six" - the permanent members of the
UN Security Council, including the US and Germany - at their meeting in Geneva
on October 1.
On Monday, the six were due to 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 it
has produced over the past 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 low-enriched uranium by
Tehran would be considered by the administration to be "tangible sign of
Iran has also agreed to grant IAEA inspectors full access on October 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
"Iran Six" 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 last week in
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 UN 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 Representative 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
"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 UN 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."
Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.