May 6, 2010 | Scripps Howard News Service

Give Crippling Sanctions A Chance

Congress wants Obama to get tougher with Iran.

There is no greater threat to national and international security than the possibility that Iran's current rulers – militant Islamists, terrorist masters and sworn enemies of both the Great Satan and the Little Satan – may acquire nuclear weapons. Recently, a memo by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (leaked to The New York Times) advised the President that the development of a strategy to confront this threat is long overdue.

Obama hoped confrontation could be avoided. He came into office eager to engage the Islamic Republic, to strike a “grand bargain” that would give Iran's theocrats respect and just about anything else they wanted in exchange for their agreement not to develop and wield nukes. More than a year later, this approach has yielded nothing. Iran's rulers don't even want to negotiate.

So a strong bipartisan majority in Congress is pointing Obama in a different direction: Both the House and the Senate have passed bills that would cut off most of the gasoline Iran now imports – and needs — to keep its sputtering economy from grinding to a halt. A bicameral conference committee is working on a final product – the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (IRPSA) – soon to be sent to the President to sign into law.

For that bill to be as tough as it can and should be, however, one additional arrow needs to be put in the quiver: an amendment that would prohibit corporations not only from selling shiploads of gasoline to Iran but also from selling any goods, services, technology and information that would assist the regime's development and maintenance of its oil and natural gas infrastructures.

Tehran's need to import, by some estimates, as much as 40 percent of its gasoline from foreign companies is its “Achilles' heel.” Why does one of the world's leading exporters of oil need foreign gasoline at all? In large part, because it has focused on building nuclear facilities rather than oil refineries.

IRPSA will extend and expand the 1996 Iran and Libya Sanctions Act (now known as the Iran Sanctions Act, or ISA) to give the President the means to sanction foreign companies involved in almost any aspect of Iran's refined petroleum trade — including suppliers, insurers, banks, shippers, investors, even those who supply technology and information.

But, again, both ISA and IRPSA, as currently written, contain a huge loophole. While the House and Senate bills target the entire supply chain for gasoline, and ISA prohibits direct investment in Iranian natural gas and oil projects, neither addresses the supply of critical goods, technology, services and specialized energy information for the oil and natural gas sectors. Without that, sanctions will not be truly “crippling.”

Also of concern: As pressure on its gasoline trade has increased, the Islamic Republic has responded with countermeasures intended to provide “energy independence.” This effort reportedly includes a range of projects – from the conversion of existing vehicles to run on natural gas to a sweeping mandate for new Iranian cars to be “flexible fueled,” that is, able to run on a variety of gasoline/alcohol fuel mixtures.

The good news is that Iran has not yet progressed very far along this path, thanks to government mismanagement and lack of foreign assistance. With the amendment recommended above, IRPSA would put a large obstacle in the way of Iran obtaining that assistance.

More than a few members of Congress now seem to be serious about sanctions. At last week's conference committee meeting, House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Howard Berman (D-CA) called on lawmakers to strengthen IRPSA, “to plug that gap in our anticipated sanctions regime.” His colleague, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) emphasized that sales of goods, services and technology to Iran “are just as damaging to our interests as capital investment.”

Could crippling sanctions and their impact on an already ailing Iranian economy change the behavior of the Iranian regime – or cause a change of regime? There's only one way to find out. Along with support for Iran's dissident Green Movement, this is the last, best chance to peacefully stop Iran's jihadis from achieving the lethal capabilities they need to match the hostile intentions they have long harbored.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and Islamism.


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