x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Congress puts on pressure for sanctions against Iran

For almost two decades, targeting Iran has been a key priority of the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), the powerful pro-Israel lobby group.

WASHINGTON // For almost two decades, targeting Iran has been a key priority of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), the powerful pro-Israel lobby group. After issuing their Comprehensive Sanctions Against Iran: a Plan for Action report in 1995, Aipac has supported a range of Congressional efforts to impose sanctions banning direct trade between Iran and the US and that punish others that engage in commerce with the Islamic Republic. Since then, members of Congress have drafted scores of bills and amendments proposing various sanctions against Iran, requiring executive branch agencies to issue reports on Iranian behaviour, among a host of other punitive measures. Some of these were passed, most have died in committee. But with President Barack Obama determined to reign in Iran's nuclear ambitions (and other negative regional behaviour), through direct diplomacy and the engagement of major world powers, pressures in Congress are intensifying efforts to enact new sanctions, a move that could severely undermine the administration's strategy. Two weeks ago, the House of Representatives passed legislation authorising state and local governments "to divest from and prevent investment in companies doing business with Iran's energy industry". And now, Congress appears to be set, in the coming weeks, to vote on the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (IRPSA) - an effort to prohibit activity that supports Iran's petroleum industry. During the past month, top administration officials have testified before Congress expressing concern with these efforts to impose new unilateral sanctions against Iran. Deputy secretary of state Jim Steinberg, not wanting Congress to tie the President's hands in any future negotiations, urged legislators to give the Administration the flexibility they need to continue diplomatic efforts - either to alter Iran's behaviour or failing that, secure the international support needed for a more comprehensive sanctions effort. "I think we have a better chance of getting broad-based sanctions, broad-based economic and political pressure because we've demonstrated that we have made every effort to solve this through diplomacy, and that Iran - [has] clearly rejected any attempt to solve this peacefully." The undersecretary of the treasury, Stuart Levey, made the case that to be effective, sanctions had to be targeted and have international backing. Otherwise, he said, the Iranian people and not the regime will suffer, and that in any case, without the buy-in of the international community sanctions will be ineffective. "I think we have to [determine] whether [the sanctions are] more targeted on individual entities in Iran as opposed to a broad-based thing that would affect the Iranian economy - we have not reached a judgment as to which of those might be the most effective - [and] if we do not have international support - the efficacy of the sanctions will not nearly be as effective." But with political pressure mounting within Congress, the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Howard Berman, a sponsor of IRPSA, was forced to announce that he would move the bill out of committee for a vote. At the same time, Mr Berman made clear his own reservations about the bill. "I view this legislation as the fourth best option to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability. My first preference is to resolve the nuclear issue through diplomatic means, and I strongly support the Obama administration's efforts to engage Iran." Still, IRPSA will likely be voted on in the coming weeks. foreign.desk@thenational.ae