April 20, 2010 | Quote

Impatient Congress Strikes Out on Its Own to Sanction Iran

Growing impatient with the Obama administration’s Iran policy, members of Congress from both parties are proposing a variety of get-tough measures of their own. The moves, which include both sanctions and anti-regime legislation, come despite President Obama’s shift from emphasizing diplomatic outreach last year to favoring passage of a new round of international economic sanctions against the Iranian regime.

Congress’s raft of responses came after Tehran’s decision this week to begin processing high-enriched uranium – a move that could eventually result in the fuel for a nuclear weapon. Also, on Thursday, Tehran repressed opposition protests marking the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Republic.

The proposed legislation generally goes further than a White House that sees its shift toward sanctions as a way to pressure Tehran into dialogue. They range from a sanctions bill aimed at the Iranian regime’s human rights’ abuses to another calling for overt American support of pro-democracy elements and regime change.

“The administration is focused now on getting some sanctions resolution out of the [United Nations] Security Council, but what we see coming from some prominent members of Congress goes well beyond the watered-down resolution that’s likely to come out of an effort focused on getting China and Russia on board,” says Mark Dubowitz, an Iran sanctions expert and executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.

Administrations often grate at such efforts from the Hill and would prefer that Congress leave foreign-policy matters such as international sanctions to the executive branch. The Obama administration is no different, concerned especially that Congress’s emphasis on Tehran’s human rights abuses could make it harder for the US to win China over to supporting international economic sanctions, or to keep Russia on board.

But Mr. Dubowitz says the Congress, with its tough bills and talk of regime change, is also playing the useful role of “bad cop” as the administration takes a “good cop” cooperative stance within the Security Council negotiations on Iran. He predicts, however, that once the Security Council process is finished, both the US and some European countries will move ahead with tougher Iran measures of their own – some of it, in the case of the US, reflecting the current congressional proposals.

In comments on congressional sanctions legislation earlier this week, State Department spokesman Phillip Crowley was careful to note that congressional efforts rightly reflect the “seriousness by which not only the executive branch, but the legislative branch views current developments with respect to Iran.”

He then cautioned, however, that the State Department will want to ensure that the president retains “sufficient flexibility” within congressional efforts “to be able to work with other countries effectively” toward the goal of pressuring Iran to change course on its nuclear program.

US legislation targeting Iran since the Iran Sanctions Act passed in 1996 has included a presidential waiver, Dubowitz notes, and he expects future legislation would as well.

“Administrations do need to retain flexibility, but with the presidential waiver, legislation targeting [businesses involved in Iran’s energy sector] is still a clear shot across the bow that doing business with the [Iranian] Revolutionary Guards will come at a very high price.”

The US Treasury Department and other US agencies say the Revolutionary Guards have taken increasing control of the Iranian economy since last June’s presidential election.

The legislation proposed this week includes:

• A bill from a bipartisan list of senators – including John McCain (R) of Arizona, Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut, and Evan Bayh (D) of Indiana – that would impose “targeted sanctions” on members of the Iranian regime responsible for human rights abuses.

• The Iran Democratic Transition Act, introduced by Republican Sens. Sam Brownback of Kansas and John Cornyn of Texas, which calls for direct assistance to Iranian democracy groups to “help pave the way for a freely elected, open and democratic government in Iran.”

The proposed legislation comes on the heels of legislation targeting Iran’s refined petroleum imports that has passed in a Senate and a House version and awaits resolution in conference.

The new congressional thrust reflects a growing conviction among some US policymakers and Iran experts that economic measures are not going to sway the Iranian regime, and that therefore, a shift in emphasis to political measures is warranted.

“With the prospects for negotiations and effective sanctions poor, and with the consequences of either an Iranian nuclear weapon or a preventive strike by Israel or the US so potentially troubling, a decision to reorient US policy toward promoting political change in Tehran is warranted,” writes Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, on the council’s website.