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Crippling new Iran sanctions? Well, yes, they will cripple U.S. diplomacy.

December 14, 2009

The House will vote Tuesday (December 15) on new Iran sanctions legislation intended to impose an embargo on the import of gasoline and other refined petroleum products to Iran. Iran depends on imports for 40% of its gasoline needs, so proponents are declaring that the bill will impose “crippling” sanctions on Iran.

I agree that the bill, H.R. 2194, will impose crippling sanctions, but on U.S. diplomacy, not on Iran. Iran will be able to evade the sanctions; the Obama administration will not. The bill would not allow the president to gradually ease sanctions if Iran took steps to meet U.S. concerns over its nuclear program. Instead, the bill mandates sanctions until the president can certify that Iran “has ceased nuclear-related activities, including uranium enrichment.” This not only denies the U.S. needed flexibility in negotiations with Iran, it envisions an end state—zero enrichment of uranium by Iran—that ignores Iran’s right to enrich under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

A Reasonable Goal

The equitable, safe, and plausibly achievable end state is the one many analysts have identified and former U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Pickering and his coauthors reiterated last week in Arms Control: “permit Iran to operate under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty but create the inspection, monitoring, and transparency arrangements to assure the best firewall against weapons development.” The goal, that is, should be an agreement permitting Iran to continue enrichment under strong safeguards. A such an agreement should be sought by negotiations that “avoid all-or-nothing gambles, artificial deadlines, and a preoccupation with tactics” like sanctions. That’s the kind of negotiations that will be impossible if the Iran sanctions bill the House will pass by a large majority tomorrow (the bill has 343 cosponsors) ever becomes law.

Hope in the Senate

There may be hope in the Senate, however. Last week it appeared possible that the Senate would pass language identical to the House bill before the end of the year. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid notified colleagues December 8 that he intended to pass the Senate version by unanimous consent, a procedure that does not permit debate or amendments (but which can be stopped by the objection of a single senator). Now it looks like the administration is waking up to the danger the bill poses to U.S. diplomacy and any hope of an agreement with Iran. On Friday, the State Department wrote to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair John Kerry (MA) saying that passing more unilateral sanctions now “might weaken rather than strengthen international unity and support for our efforts” among U.S. allies. In addition to the timing, the letter noted “serious substantive concerns” with the legislation, including “the lack of flexibility, inefficient monetary thresholds and penalty levels, and blacklisting that could cause unintended foreign policy consequences.” Administration officials are now reportedly negotiating with the Senate bill’s champions, Sens. Chris Dodd (CT), John Kyle (AZ), Evan Bayh (IN), and Joe Lieberman (CT), to change its more onerous provisions.

The final bill may be less draconian than the one the House is poised to pass, but the overheated domestic politics surrounding the Iran nuclear issue, sanctions, and talk of possible military action raises the question of whether the U.S. is capable of acting effectively toward Iran. The overwhelming support in Congress for more unilateral sanctions legislation now is the result of months of assiduous lobby work by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and its allies. Other voices are weighing in, including our own at FCNL (and that of Americans for Peace Now, who have prepared an excellent summary of the most serious problems with the current bill). But the playing field is tipped toward counterproductive and possibly catastrophic policies.

  1. jack bradin permalink
    December 15, 2009 5:40 pm

    Will the Nobel Peace Warrior ever understand “A Just War” is an oxymoron!?!

  2. December 15, 2009 6:01 pm

    The Democratic Party has demonstrated once again that any “change” they claim to be making is only cosmetic. They passed sanctions in Iraq in the 90’s leading to 500,000. Children’s’ deaths. Now they want to play the same hawkish fiasco on Iran, simply to look tough in the eyes of the war mongering public. They obviously don’t have any respect for Iranian lives and well being and don’t care about what gasoline shortages can do to the most vulnerable members of the society-namely the elderly and children.

  3. Samuel Neff permalink
    December 15, 2009 7:52 pm

    It seems strange to me that we continue to threaten Iran over its possible nuclear weapons activities, while ignoring the established nuclear programs of its neighbors. Iran remains a consignee of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, unlike Pakistan, India and Israel. I have heard nothing of negotiations which would envision a nuclear-free Middle East. That would make any ambition for nuclear weapons unnecessary.

    I simply do not understand why there is no concern for Israel’s secret, robust nuclear weapons program, which tacitly threatens the entire middle east. Why aren’t limits on that program part of the negotiations going on with Iran.

    Apparently Iran’s mistake was signing the treaty.

  4. Chadwick Johnson permalink
    December 17, 2009 3:25 pm

    Iran has the right to use enriched uranium for peaceful purposes,e.g., nuclear power. Don’t apply sanctions until it has been proven that Iran is developing nuclear weapons in violation of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.

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