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Obama administration shifts gears on Iran sanctions

On Iran sanctions, the Obama administration shifts gears to focus less on UN sanctions and more on modifying measures before Congress.

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Despite Iran’s oil wealth, the country’s decrepit refineries are incapable of filling domestic demand for gasoline.

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The administration is working with Congress to try to modify the legislation or include exemptions for US allies, according to some specialists in sanctions with close knowledge of the legislative process.

Reflecting another White House shift – this one in more overt support of Iran’s opposition movement that emerged after the June 12 presidential elections – the administration is also supporting an effort to curtail the Iranian regime’s access to software and equipment designed to permit limiting or closing down of public Internet access.

“The administration realized there is the sentiment in Congress to pass this” legislation, says Mr. Katzman, “so they have chosen to modify it rather than to try to stop a very heavy train that is moving.”

Flynt Leverett, an Iran expert at the New America Foundation in Washington, says there is “good reason” the US has never actually imposed measures against the foreign companies that might be subject to existing US sanctions on Iran. The US would immediately be hauled before the World Trade Organization, he says, and would lose.

As a result, he says, unilateral US sanctions are “a joke” and have only served to discourage US and European companies from doing business in Iran – thus leaving the field to Chinese, Russian, and other non-Western companies.

Additional international sanctions are unlikely to have any more impact on Iran’s behavior, Mr. Leverett says. “I don’t think sanctions limit [Iran’s] options all that much."

George Perkovich, director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says international sanctions at least can work to “punish” the regime and remind it that “there is a cost for your behavior.”

But he worries that unilateral US gasoline sanctions will only lead to estrangement between the West and the Iranian people. Recalling how the Arab countries’ oil embargo in the early 1970s fed US public rancor towards Arabs, he says he can’t picture Iranians waiting in long lines for gasoline saying, "The Americans are right, we need to change our government."

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