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    Middle East
     Dec 10, 2011

US moves for new sanctions on Iran
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

NEW YORK - The United States government is on the verge of taking its problems with the Islamic Republic of Iran to a whole new and ominous level that portends clashing interests with China and a number of other countries, including in Europe, which receives some half a million barrels of oil from Iran on a daily basis.

With about 4.2 million barrels a day, more than half of which is exported, Iran is the fourth-largest oil producer, after Russia, Saudi Arabia and the US, as well as the fourth-largest gas producer, following Russia, the US and Canada.

Last week, the US Senate unanimously adopted a new sanctions bill that calls for drastic measures against any foreign bank involved in transactions with Iran's central bank. That bill is now

pending in the House of Representatives and will soon reach the Oval Office for final ratification by President Barack Obama. He has expressed some misgivings about the legislation's draconian measures, asking to (a) extend the grace period for compliance from 60 to 180 days, and (b) reduce the penalties.

Unwilling to compromise, hawkish lawmakers sponsoring the bill and their impressive army of pro-Israel lobbyists have mounted a counter-attack, arguing that the bill is sound and does not require any "watering down" that would weaken its impact on Iran - the hope being that this will bring Tehran to its knees over the nuclear issue.

The United Nations has already ratified four rounds of sanctions against Iran over its uranium-enrichment program, which Iran says is for peaceful purposes only. These include a ban on the supply of heavy weaponry and nuclear-related technology to Iran, a block on Iranian arms exports, and an asset freeze on key individuals and companies, according to the BBC.

The European Union has also imposed its own restrictions on trade in equipment that could be used for uranium enrichment and has an asset freeze on individuals and organizations believed to be helping Iran's nuclear program.

Unilateral US sanctions also prohibit almost all trade with Iran and in November the US, the United Kingdom and Canada announced more bilateral sanctions in reaction to an International Atomic Energy Agency report which suggested Iran's nuclear program may have a military purpose.

This Wednesday, two major Jewish groups, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the American Jewish Committee, began a loud campaign in favor of the latest US sanctions bill, pressuring Obama to go along and reminding him of his "waiver authority", that is the power to make exemptions, just as it has been since the initial 1995 D'Amato Iran oil sanctions bill.

This argument traps the White House into difficult choices, for example, exempting China, which receives 13% of its imported oil from Iran, would ignite a bush fire of political criticism, and not doing so on the other hand would inevitably harm US-China relations. This is because the bill in effect asks Beijing to forego its energy ties with Iran and look elsewhere, clearly not something the Chinese are prepared to do in today's age of energy insecurity.

That insecurity would be exacerbated as a result of an oil embargo on Iran, which relies on its oil exports for some 80% of its foreign income. Oil prices would jack up, perhaps to about US$250 a barrel as warned by Tehran, but definitely more than what the cash-starved nations in Europe, such as Spain and Greece, which receive 14% of their oil from Iran, some on Iran credit, would be willing and or capable of paying.

No wonder, then, that the European Union recently backed away from a French-British initiative to impose a multilateral oil embargo on Iran, reflecting serious internal divisions that are unlikely to disappear no matter what line the US ultimately adopts vis-a-vis Iran's central bank.

Reports from Washington indicate that the administration is playing a delayed game, which is why the above-mentioned Jewish groups have upped the ante against Obama to force him to sign the pending bill. The question then becomes what will the US do with respect to European energy partners with Iran, including Italy, which has opposed the oil sanctions? Clearly, there is a risk of trans-Atlantic rifts emerging over this contentious issue.

What is more, new US sanctions affecting Iran's energy trade would instantly wipe out any goodwill generated rather discretely between Tehran and Washington over the situation in Afghanistan, as a result of Iran's participation at the recent Bonn summit on that country. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Salehi, participated in the event, much to the chagrin of the American Jewish Committee that publicly criticized Salehi's presence, perhaps smelling a new and unwanted US-Iran opportunity for dialogue that needed to be nipped in the bud.

A prudent US strategy would dictate reaching out to Iran and engaging it in regional security issues as the US is slowly but surely removing the bulk of its troops from the area. Such an approach could result in building confidence between the two sides and could conceivably be telescoped to the stalled nuclear talks.

However, the US's Iran policy has become an issue of political football in the long and arduous pre-election campaigns leading to the presidential elections next November, with candidates from both parties trying to outdo one anther in Iran-bashing, with Obama's contenders eyeing a potential to attack him as being soft on Iran.

As a result, one may expect harsher anti-Iran initiatives by Obama in the near future, geared principally to his re-election bid and despite this not being in the US national (security) interest.

A clue to this can be garnered from the way in which the US continues to accuse Iran of masterminding a terror conspiracy on US soil, irrespective of global skepticism. Thus, in his December 1 letter to the US Congress, David S Cohen, the US Under Secretary of Treasury, stated: "That the [Iranian] Qods Force is involved in terrorism has been highlighted most recently in the public allegations that the Qods Force was involved in the Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United states. This finding also explains Iran's use of its banks, such as Bank Saderat, to provide terrorist financing." [1]

Cohen is wrong, since there is no finding of Iranian banks' involvement in the alleged terror plot, as can be discerned from both the US complaint filed in a federal court in New York, as well as statements of US law-enforcement officials, repeatedly admitting that the funds allegedly wired for the terror plot came not from Iran but rather from a "foreign entity" in a "foreign country".

What is missing in Washington is the courage of an independent president who can prioritize the nation's interests and insulate himself from the interest-group politics that place the US on a collision course with Iran.

1. See here.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry, click here. He is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and his latest book, Looking for rights at Harvard, is now available.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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