Iran nuclear program: On sanctions, Congress ahead of Obama
The House and Senate are progressing with bipartisan legislation to impose sanctions in response to the Iran nuclear program. But President Obama faces difficulties in the UN Security Council.
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On Wednesday, members of a House-Senate conference on an impending Iran Sanctions Act will meet to take public comment and to iron out differences between each chamber’s version – with the aim of delivering the law to President Obama’s desk within a few weeks.
In the meantime, the administration’s push for approval of new international sanctions on Iran by the United Nations Security Council is facing new headwinds.
China, having only recently agreed to join in discussions with Security Council colleagues on a new sanctions resolution, is busy watering down its content – in particular any provisions targeting Iran’s energy sector, on which China depends in part to fuel its economy. And now rotating Security Council member Brazil is offering to team up with Turkey to mediate the crisis between Iran and Western powers as a means of staving off new UN sanctions.
Add to that the fact that Lebanon on May 1 assumes the month-long rotating presidency of the Security Council, and prospects for quick action on a sanctions resolution that Mr. Obama said weeks ago he wanted passed “within weeks not months” appear less than bright.
House and Senate both passed bills
The picture is different on Capitol Hill. After both houses overwhelmingly passed separate versions of Iran sanctions legislation – the House in December in a 412-to-12 vote, the Senate unanimously in January – conferees appear anxious to demonstrate that a much-maligned and divided Congress is able to get something done.
Both versions of the bill include provisions for US measures against third-party companies that export refined petroleum products to Iran. Iran’s lack of refining capacity and its reliance on gasoline imports is considered its economic Achilles’ heel.
There are some indications that the prospect of US action is already causing Iran pain. Some foreign petroleum companies have suspended gasoline sales to Iran over the threat of US action, and this week Total, the French petroleum giant, announced it would cease selling refined products to Iran if the US legislation becomes law.
The Obama administration has not been wild about the proposed legislation, however, for two reasons: first, the fear that it would make getting international agreement on a UN resolution more difficult; and second, over concerns that the gasoline measures in particular risk raising nationalist sentiments and driving the Iranian public into the arms of a repressive regime.