WASHINGTON - The United States Congress has given new momentum to a bill
imposing unilateral sanctions on Iran - a move seen by many as an ineffective
form of sanctions and potentially antagonistic against valuable US allies on
the United Nations Security Council.
This comes ahead of the end-of-the-year deadline set by US President Barack
Obama for Tehran to respond to a proposed agreement to export most of its
enriched uranium for processing in Russia and France.
The Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (IRPSA) will likely pass the House
next week and - if the Senate passes its version of the legislation - would
expand economic sanctions against the
Islamic Republic, restricting US loans that aid Iran's petroleum industry.
This bill would prevent the Export-Import Bank of the United States, "from
providing credit, insurance, or guarantees to any project controlled by any
energy producers or refiners that contribute significantly to Iran's refined
petroleum resources", according to the Congressional Research Service.
Critics of the House bill - which is sponsored by Democratic representative
Howard Berman - charge that it will: hurt the Iranian people while having
little effect on the leadership that sanctions are supposed to put pressure on;
undermine the Obama administration's attempts at engagement with Iran under a
multilateral negotiating framework; and isolate the US by antagonizing crucial
allies in the UN Security Council.
While a House version of the bill has been expected to pass the before the body
adjourns later this month, a decision by the senate to "hotline" the bill - a
move, where barring any objections, the bill will be brought to the floor and
passed without debate, without amendment, and without a roll-call vote - took
many observers by surprise this week.
"The way it's drafted will have significant ripple effects on Export-Import
Bank's ability to co-finance transactions in a number of locations. As far as
we can tell congress gave little or no thought to what would happen if this
bill was enacted," Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade
Council, told Inter Press Service (IPS).
"We've always thought that the way to avoid this type of problem is
multilaterally. We support what the president is trying to do," Reinsch
continued. "He is trying to engage the Iranians in a dialogue and at the same
time build multilateral support for that dialogue and sanctions. The only
economic pressure that would have an impact would be multilateral. If you can't
bring Russia and China into the fold it won't accomplish anything."
Indeed, under the proposed sanctions legislation, the US would sanction a
number of companies which export gasoline to Iran or buy Iranian imports. These
companies would likely include a number of state-owned companies from countries
which wield vetoes in the UN Security Council.
The possibility that the sanctions legislation would hurt the Obama
administration's attempts at engagement, multilateral negotiations and
sanctions, and fail to include some of Iran's biggest trading partners, has
left some analysts concerned that if the House and senate pass their bills the
US will ultimately be drawn closer to a confrontation with the Islamic
"I think that we've never seen unilateral sanctions on Iran work so the fact
that we're going down this path before the deadline is in my view problematic.
It gives the impression we're dying to go to sanctions," Trita Parsi, president
of the National Iranian American Council, told IPS.
"Even while the Iranian people stood up this past summer and showed tremendous
courage, the sanctions proposed by congress - and even lawmakers admit - will
put hardship on the Iranian people. More than anything else it can send the
signal that while we say we sympathize with the Iranian people or stand with
them, it is more empty rhetoric than real substance," Parsi concluded.
American Jewish groups have experienced a split over the Iran sanctions issue
as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and J Street - the new
"pro-Israel, pro-peace" advocacy group - have endorsed the sanctions
"Passage of this bill by congress will highlight for the Iranian government the
choice they must make between one path that leads to further isolation and
another that leads to full integration in the international community and the
ability to develop their economy to its full potential," said J Street
executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, in a statement on Monday.
But Americans for Peace Now (APN) split with J Street and AIPAC and denounced
the sanctions legislation as, "reflect[ing] a misguided and potentially
self-defeating approach for the US to the challenge posed by Iran's nuclear
"We strongly urge senators to object to this attempt to short-circuit debate
[and potential amendments] and fast-track a piece of complex and far-reaching
legislation - legislation that would impact virtually every aspect of and every
option for US policy toward Iran now and in the future," said APN in a letter
sent to all senate offices after the move to "hotline" the sanctions bill was
"I think that Peace Now's position is pretty much where the progressives are. J
Street has its reasons for taking its positions but there isn't much doubt in
my mind that you won't find more than a tiny percentage of Jewish progressives
who agree with it. It's a very controversial position they have," senior fellow
at Media Matters for America - and former AIPAC staffer - M J Rosenberg told