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POLITICS-US: Congress Pushes Sanctions on Iran

Khody Akhavi

WASHINGTON, Jul 18 2007 (IPS) - As the United States and its United Nations allies plan to push for stiffer economic sanctions on Iran over its refusal to halt its nuclear programme, an Iran sanctions bill making its way through Congress includes several key measures that may threaten U.S. diplomacy towards Tehran and split key allies on the issue, including Russia.

The Iran Counter Proliferation Act of 2007 (H.R. 1400), introduced by Democrat Tom Lantos in March, aims to increase economic pressure on Iran by eliminating President George W. Bush&#39s ability to waive sanctions against foreign companies which invest in the country&#39s energy industry.

The bill would also restrict U.S. nuclear cooperation with countries such as Russia, that assist Iran&#39s nuclear and weapons programme.

"Our goal must be zero foreign investment – let me repeat this, zero foreign investment – in Iran&#39s energy sector. That is the only formula that can prevent Iran&#39s acquisition of nuclear weapons," said Lantos in statement released by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, which he chairs.

But critics argue that the bill jeopardises Russian-U.S. cooperation, at a time when Washington needs Moscow&#39s support to confront Iran on the international stage.

"Any deterioration of cooperation with Moscow in this sphere could ultimately diminish successful U.S.-Russian collaboration in the effort to secure and dismantle weapons of mass destruction and their associated infrastructure in former Soviet Union states," according to a statement by Israel Policy Forum, a Zionist peace group based in Washington. "The Russian issue does not belong in this bill."

While maintaining a powerful position – and veto power – on the U.N. Security Council, Russia has cultivated close ties with Tehran, building a nuclear power plant near Iran&#39s southern port of Bushehr.

In February, Russian officials confirmed that Russia had delivered more than 700 million dollars worth of air-defence systems to help protect Iran&#39s nuclear sites from attack, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal.

"We don&#39t think Iran should feel itself encircled by enemies," Russian Vladimir Putin told the Arab satellite news station al-Jazeera. "The Iranian people and the Iranian leadership should feel they have friends in the world."

Relations between Washington and Moscow are already strained over U.S. plans for a missile defence system in former Soviet bloc countries in Eastern Europe. Washington says the system is meant to protect Europe from a possible Iranian nuclear missile strike, but Russia says the U.S. system is aimed at its nuclear arsenal.

In 2006, Congress withheld 60 percent of U.S. foreign aid assistance to Russia because of its continued assistance to Iran&#39s nuclear and ballistic missiles programmes.

Russian politicians also expressed dismay over the proposed bill, arguing that "both the letter and spirit" of the bill are in conflict with international law.

"It cannot but cause disappointment and regret because this bill requests that Russia stop all assistance to Iran and that does not supply Iran with any improved conventional arms or missiles," Konstantin Kosachev, head of the State Duma&#39s committee for international affairs, told the Russian news agency Interfax.

The legislation would also re-impose import sanctions on certain Iranian exports to the United States, such as food stuffs and Persian carpets, and call for the Bush administration to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a terrorist organisation.

The IRGC, established by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as a parallel force to the military during Iran&#39s Islamic Revolution, has been accused by the U.S. of training Lebanon&#39s Hezbollah, supplying Shi&#39ite militias in Iraq, and participating in insurgent attacks on U.S. troops.

The Revolutionary Guard&#39s leadership is so politically and financially powerful within the country that any Iranian leader is likely to demand that the U.S. repeal that provision as a precondition for negotiations on the nuclear issue.

The Bush administration has been rhetorically steadfast in its opposition to Iran&#39s nuclear aspirations, and has continually emphasised its desire to see "regime change" in Iran.

"The world has spoken and said, &#39You know, no nuclear weapons programmes.&#39 And yet [Iran is] constantly ignoring the demands," Bush told reporters during a recent Rose Garden news conference. "My view is that we need to strengthen our sanction regime."

While the U.S. appears to maintain a consistent policy supporting rigid sanctions on Iran, Congressional legislation such as HR 1400 may potentially undercut those aims.

And the current legislation is just one of several bills in Congress and state legislatures to respond to a grassroots campaign to divest in companies that do business with countries that the State Department considers state sponsors of terrorism.

In the last year, state lawmakers in California, Missouri, Florida and New Jersey have introduced bills that specifically seek to ban investment in Iran&#39s oil and natural gas infrastructure. The "terror-free" investment movement – spearheaded by the neoconservative think tank Centre for Security Policy – aims to force mutual funds, pension funds, and endowments to pull their investments from international companies that do business with Iran.

The divestment effort has also gained attention because of the involvement of pro-Israel interest groups. The "Divest Iran" campaign was one of the main messages delivered at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee convention in Washington in March.

Yet officials within the State Department appear resistant to any legislation that may undermine executive branch&#39s power and direction over U.S. foreign policy.

"If the focus of the United States&#39 effort is to sanction our allies and not sanction Iran, that may not be the best way to maintain this very broad international coalition that we have built up since March of 2005," Under Secretary R. Nicholas Burns told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in March, regarding HR 1400.

Similar sanctions against Iran were recently slipped into a 2008 defence appropriations bill in the Senate, and were met with similar resistance.

"While these proposals are certainly well intended, they could have significant counter-productive policy implications," said Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Robert Kimmitt, during a speech at the Institute for Near East Policy in May.

While the Bush administration appears confident it can persuade countries such as Russia to support stiffer sanctions against Iran, the critical question will be how much Congressional legislation will complicate the Bush administration&#39s relationship to key international players and what that will portend for U.S. "diplomacy" towards Iran.

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