Congress grows impatient on Iran, N. Korea, vows action

Tired of President Obama's cautious approach, lawmakers look to sanction the two regimes.

Some members of Congress, increasingly impatient with the Obama administration's "give diplomacy a chance" stance toward Iran and North Korea, are pressing for new punitive measures against those countries.

This week the House Appropriations Committee attached an amendment to the 2010 foreign operations appropriations bill that would direct the Export-Import Bank to cut off US loan guarantees to certain companies doing business with Iran, particularly in the petroleum sector.

On Wednesday, Sen. Sam Brownback (R) of Kansas called on the Obama administration to use measures included in the Patriot Act to designate North Korea a "primary concern" of the US over its money-laundering networks. That would authorize the Treasury Department to take steps on the issue.

The two measures follow several months in which congressional attempts to sanction the regimes stalled as the Obama administration argued for time to see if international diplomacy would produce any results. The overriding concern in both cases is the regimes' nuclear programs.

But Iran's recent crackdown on protesters disputing the June 12 presidential election has galvanized many in Congress, especially Republicans critical of President Obama's initial response to the Iranian repression. North Korea's unabated belligerence in the wake of toughened UN sanctions – in particular Pyongyang's threat to launch a missile toward Hawaii – has had a similar effect.

"There's a new mood on Capitol Hill, especially in light of the crackdown in Iran," says Orde Kittrie, a law professor and expert in nuclear proliferation and sanctions at Arizona State University in Tucson.

"The [original] idea was to allow some period of time during which the engagement with Iran would occur without US sanctions increasing, and we'd see how they would respond," says Mr. Kittrie, who is also a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington. "But the Iranians seem to have responded with a clenched fist, so it seems likely even the administration is going to reevaluate its policy towards Iran."

The congressional amendment regarding the Ex-Im Bank, the US government's export credit agency, is aimed in particular at India's Reliance Industries, a petroleum refiner that has supplied Iran with much of its gasoline.

Reliance was awarded a $900 million loan from Ex-Im last year to expand a refinery in Jamnagar in western India for the purpose of supplying the US market. Reliance suspended gasoline sales to Iran in January in response to retaliatory measures proposed in the US Congress, but resumed them in March after Mr. Obama's Nowruz, or Iranian New Year, message to the Iranian people, in which he called on the two countries to resolve their differences.

The recent measures come amid growing congressional criticism of Obama's approach, but some observers say they should not be interpreted as reproving the president.

Congress was already playing a "bad cop" role toward Iran that allowed the "good cop" – the administration – to point out to Tehran the consequences of not embracing negotiations, Kittrie says.

Senator Brownback's latest initiative should be seen less as a commentary on Obama and more in the context of his previous bills targeting countries that sponsor terrorism or abuse citizens' rights, says Becky Ogilvie, the sentor's aide. "Senator Brownback has been involved with issues surrounding both North Korea and Iran for a number of years now," she says.

But Mr. Kittrie does say that recent events, especially Iran's political crackdown, will lead to tougher US sanctions. Tough economic sanctions led to Libya renouncing its weapons programs, he says. "It's time for a stronger set of sanctions to convince [the Iranians] that their nuclear program is no longer worth the cost."

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