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
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." 
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
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.