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.

Harry Hamburg/AP
Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D) of Illinois (l.) huddles with Rep. Mike Pence (R) of Indiana, as House minority whip Eric Cantor of Virginia speaks during a news conference April 14 to discuss sanctions related to the Iran nuclear program.

In the race between Congress and the Obama administration to deliver a new round of sanctions related to the Iran nuclear program, lawmakers appear to be winning.

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.

Iran moving toward nuclear capability

But those concerns appear to be losing whatever support they had in Congress, especially as reports continue to surface of Iran’s progress towards nuclear capability. Another factor is Iran’s PR effort to derail the UN sanctions effort, which appears to be getting traction with countries like Turkey and Brazil.

Typifying congressional sentiment are remarks that US Rep. Howard Berman (D) of California, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, made in a floor speech last week: “We need the strongest possible sanctions, and we need them fast.”

The rare voices of opposition to congressional action on tough Iran sanctions come from members who are less concerned that the measures would tie the Obama administration’s hands, than that they risk hurting the Iranian public and putting the US on a path to war.

Also speaking on the floor last week, US Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D) of Ohio said, “The leaders of Iran aren’t going to want for gasoline, but the people of Iran are going to suffer…. Will this cause them to turn against their government?” he asked, “or will it cause them to turn against the US and our efforts to bring about a cessation of Iran’s nuclear program?”

Drums of war?

US Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas, on the other hand, hears war drums – similar to those that were beating before the US-led invasion of Iraq – when calls for swift and tough sanctions on Iran arise.

Calling such talk “propaganda to speed us to war against Iran,” Mr. Paul last week chastised his colleagues for repeated warnings like, “We cannot afford to sit around and wait for Iran to detonate a nuclear weapon.”

He then added, “Where have we heard that before? Anyone remember then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s oft repeated quip about Iraq: that we cannot wait for the smoking gun to appear as a mushroom cloud?”


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