Even before the House overwhelmingly passed long-stalled legislation Tuesday to impose sanctions on foreign suppliers of refined petroleum products to Iran, the Obama administration had asked the Senate to hold off on approving new sanctions on Iran until early next year.
In a little-noticed move Friday, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg wrote to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. John Kerry, D.-Mass., urging him not to move similar legislation in the Senate because it “might weaken rather than strengthen international unity and support for our efforts.”
The Obama White House has used similar arguments in the past to forestall the House sanctions bill, which Democrats held for six months before finally voting it out of committee in frustration mid-October.
Steinberg's letter to Kerry argued that the failure of the administration’s efforts to slow Iran’s nuclear programs through negotiations now requires “decisive action” aimed at exerting pressure on the Iranian regime.
“[W]e are entering a critical period of intense diplomacy to impose significant international pressure on Iran,” Steinberg wrote. "In addition to the timing, we have serious substantive concerns, including the lack of flexibility, inefficient monetary thresholds and penalty levels, and blacklisting that could cause unintended foreign policy consequences.”
Previous administrations have made similar arguments against imposing Iran sanctions, uncomfortable with congressional infringements on the executive branch's exercise of foreign policy.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, cited the administration letter during Tuesday’s floor debate, after which the measure passed 412-12. He repeatedly compared fear of Iranian nuclear weapons with the pre-war “propaganda” surrounding WMD in Iraq but was unable to win much support from other members.
The sanctions effort is “a path toward military escalation,” he said, adding disparaging remarks about the appearance during the weekend of new documents detailing Iran’s work on nuclear weapons triggers.
“It’s beginning to look like uranium from Niger,” Kucinich said.
But Republicans and Democrats united in supporting the measure, which Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., called “the last best diplomatic hope to solve this problem.”
Several members argued that the effort to inflict economic pain on the regime must be coupled with more active support for the Iranian opposition.
The Obama administration needs to adopt a "broad-based Iran policy… that speaks out against its human rights abuses and bolsters its democracy supporters,” said Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif.
When fully enforced, sanctions “weaken the oppressors and express support for the opposition,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla. “They send a clear message to the dissidents who are hungry for freedom that we stand with them.”
The lead sponsor of the bill, California Democrat Howard Berman, gave Kucinich a verbal dressing down for adopting the Iranian regime’s argument that sanctions would inflict pain on the Iranian people.
Berman reminded him of similar legislation passed in 1996 that banned all investment in South Africa and ultimately led to international sanctions and the collapse of the apartheid regime and the end of its nuclear weapons program.
“It is ludicrous to think that the people who are risking their life and liberty and limbs . . . are going to turn into a unifying force behind that regime because the price of oil gets higher,” Berman said.
Mohsen Sazegara, a key leader of the pro-freedom movement, told Newsmax in an exclusive interview before the floor debate that the South African example was uppermost in the mind of pro-democracy leaders in Iran.
“You had an international effort to isolate the apartheid regime. We need the same type of international help against the regime in Tehran,” he said.
Sazegara said he would like to see the international community focus additional pressure on the Revolutionary Guards.
“The Revolutionary Guards are the source of terrorism. They control the nuclear weapons program. They are opposing the peace process. They are being used to oppress the people. The international community should ban any kind of economic cooperation with them,” Sazegara said.
Some analysts believe that the time for sanctions on the supply of refined petroleum goods to Iran has come and gone, and that it may simply be too late for them to have the impact on Iran’s economy that was initially foreseen.
They note that Iran has taken a number of steps to decrease its reliance on imported gasoline and diesel fuel, which accounted for more than 40 percent of domestic consumption two years ago, including new supplier agreements with Venezuela and China.
Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who joined Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and Kucinich in opposing the bill, noted that punitive measures against companies supplying Iran with gasoline and diesel could backfire, because many of the supplying companies are located in countries whose help the U.S. will need to get international sanctions adopted at the United Nations.
Proponents of the measure are hoping that the refined petroleum ban will cause enough economic pain to force the regime to choose between nuclear weapons development and prosperity.
“We shouldn’t hope for a change of heart from that regime,” said Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. “But we can hope for a change of behavior.”
As long as Iran continues to develop weapons to threaten its neighbors, it must know it will pay an economic price. “These sanctions have the power to force that choice,” Hoyer said.
During the floor debate, Kucinich cited the National Iranian American Council, which has been lobbying intensively against sanctions, some say at the behest of Tehran.
In a statement released on Monday, the group claimed that sanctions “contribute to the Iranian people's suffering by seeking to restrict Iran's supply of heating oil and gasoline,” and applauded President Obama for his diplomatic outreach to the regime.
That position is nothing new for council opponent Hassan Daioleslam.
The council's "lobby against sanctions always has been presented with a human face, as if it were designed to reduce the suffering of the Iranian people,” he told Newsmax, citing a 2003 letter that council President Trita Parsi wrote to one of the group’s co-founders.
The main goal of the lobby was to “open up opportunities for trade,” Parsi wrote in that letter. “Nonetheless, despite its predominantly business-oriented constituency, it is essential that the lobby creates a ‘human face’ for its aims and goals.”
Most recently, that human face has prompted the National Iranian American Council to support opposition protesters in Iran, even though the group lobbied actively against U.S. government support for the pro-democracy movement as recently as 2007.
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