WASHINGTON - In a surprisingly swift move last Thursday night that could have
wide-ranging implications, the United States Senate passed a bill containing
broad unilateral sanctions to punish foreign companies that export gasoline to
Iran or help expand its domestic refinery capabilities.
The voice vote came at the eleventh hour before the chamber recessed so
legislators could go home to campaign. The bill cannot come before the
president to be signed into law until a
conference procedure combines it with a similar house bill, the Iran Refined
Petroleum Sanctions Act, passed in October.
The senate move reveals an administration losing control of even its own party
in foreign policy dealings, as US President Barack Obama has tried to maintain
engagement with Iran aimed at curbing its nuclear program, which the Islamic
Republic insists is for peaceful purposes.
Along with scores of Democrats who favored the bill over the administration's
objections, the effort was supported by Iran hawks, including Republican
co-sponsor John Kyl and neo-conservative independent Joe Lieberman, and was
characterized by Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell as a shot at Obama.
"If the Obama administration will not take action against this regime, then
congress must," McConnell said.
The administration had raised its issues with the bill in a December letter
from Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg to Senator John Kerry, chairman of
the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, complaining that the bill limited the
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also made late December comments urging
caution in applying broad sanctions that might harm and alienate the struggling
Iranian opposition movement, asking instead for sanctions that targeted the
Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, thought to be responsible for crackdowns
against opposition demonstrators.
The contents of the bill require the president to impose the wide-ranging
sanctions, restraining the traditional presidential foreign policy waiver to a
line-by-line exemption that forces Obama to spend political capital.
However, after senate majority leader Harry Reid - beset by a host of political
problems from slow economic recovery to stalled health care reform - made it
clear that he intended to pursue the bill, the administration dropped its
public opposition, perhaps hoping that it could change the bill with amendments
or in conference.
But a compromise scuttled amendments in Thursday night's brief deliberations.
In a dramatic twist reported by ForeignPolicy.com, Republican Senator John
McCain tried to introduce an amendment to the bill that would name, shame and
sanction specific Iranian human-rights violators - a theme that echoes the
administration calls for more targeted sanctions.
But McCain dropped his amendments at the behest of Lieberman. The leadership of
both parties was apparently concerned that if amendments were introduced, the
process would be slowed and the bill might not come to a vote in time.
And Patrick Disney, the assistant policy director of the National Iranian
American Council (NIAC), which supports engagement, said that even in
conference, it will be difficult to remove the language that binds Obama's
"I wouldn't be surprised if they expedited the conference," he told Inter Press
Service (IPS). "I don't know if they'll be able to take that part out because
it's the main central architecture of the bills."
The rushed vote with almost no debate came a week before France, which supports
sanctions on Iran, is to take the presidency of the United Nations Security
Council from China, which has balked at punishing Iran as negotiations are
ongoing. Passing the bill as the administration negotiated with the Security
Council was viewed as diplomatically problematic.
But Richard Sawaya, the president of USA*Engage, a group that opposes
unilateral sanctions, told IPS that passing the bill before or during Security
Council negotiations was "a distinction without a difference".
Another aspect of the bill, introduced by Senator Chris Dodd, raising eyebrows
is the codification into law of an embargo against Iran imposed by president
Bill Clinton in the 1990s. The Dodd bill requires congress to approve the
lifting of the embargo.
Disney of NIAC said that the bill, rather than giving the president more tools
for negotiating with Iran, virtually takes the embargo off the table as a US
"This means that no president can lift the embargo without certifying to
congress that Iran has met a laundry list of demands that no president in his
right mind will certify," Disney told IPS.
"All of the things that this bill sought to do, the president had the power to
do already," he said. "By congress passing these bills, it removed the
president's ability to walk things back without congress."
One of the prime dangers of pursuing such draconian sanctions is that, while
Obama's tentative year-end deadline for negotiations to bear fruit has passed,
a slow-paced back and forth between Iranians and the multilateral team
including the US is still evolving.
The US has not even responded to the latest Iranian counter-offer for a uranium
The situation is also complicated by the resilient Iranian opposition, which
has maintained its struggle against Iran's hardline leadership after alleged
widespread voter fraud in the June election that re-installed Mahmud
Ahmadinejad as Iran's president.
While the Obama administration has taken a considerably more cautious tone
since June - and especially in the subsequent months, as the opposition has
refused to cower in the face of a brutal crackdown - hardliners in congress
appear to be deaf to the fluid realities on the ground in the Islamic Republic.
"I would think the first rule is the physician's rule, which is 'do no harm,'"
said Sawaya of USA*Engage.
Furthermore, "crippling sanctions", as broad-based gas sanctions are often
called, is a potential checklist item on a path to military confrontation with
Iran. But some think imposing and enforcing the sanctions themselves could be
tantamount to war.
"Even half of the people that proposed [gas sanctions] say the only way to
really impose that is a naval blockade," said Sawaya. "Well, that's an act of
In a statement on Friday, Debra DeLee, president of Americans for Peace Now,
urged that the bill be modified when members of the house and senate meet to
reconcile their respective versions of the legislation.
"The house-senate conference offers the last chance for congress to do the
right thing here: to amend this bill to make it consistent with a rational
approach to Iran, with the national interests of the United States, and with
the multilateral approach that is being pursued by the president of the United
States," she said.