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US-IRAN: House Passes Sanctions Bill, Senate Urged to Wait

Eli Clifton

WASHINGTON, Dec 15 2009 (IPS) - In advance of U.S. President Barack Obama’s end of the year deadline for Iran to respond to negotiations aimed at bringing a halt to the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme, the House of Representatives passed a bill Tuesday to sanction companies that sell refined petroleum to Iran.

The Senate’s version of the bill appears to be held up after the State Department issued a letter to the Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry urging the Senate to slow down in bringing the Iran sanctions bill to the floor for a vote until the new year.

”[W]e are entering a critical period of intense diplomacy to impose significant international pressure on Iran. This requires that we keep the focus on Iran. At this juncture, I am concerned that this legislation, in its current form, might weaken rather than strengthen international unity and support for our efforts,” wrote Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg on Friday, in a letter first leaked by Foreign Policy Magazine.

The Obama administration’s desire to slow down the sanctions legislation in the Senate comes as the White House attempts to mobilise international support – particularly among Iranian trade partners such as Russia and China – for multilateral sanctions.

The bills passed by the House and introduced in the Senate would push Obama to take a more unilateral path on sanctions, a move seen by many analysts as ultimately unhelpful to the goal of bringing pressure on Tehran while not causing undue suffering for the Iranian populace.

The House bill, which passed with an overwhelming majority of 412-12, was hailed as a victory by legislators who compared the proposed sanctions against Iran to the sanctions used to bring an end to the Apartheid government in South Africa. They warned that a failure to engage in unilateral sanctions would endanger Israeli security if Iran completed construction of a nuclear weapon.

Iran has insisted that its nuclear programme is for civilian energy purposes only.

”A nuclear-armed Iran would spread its influence by intimidating its neighbours; it would, with near impunity, continue to support terrorists and destabilise the Middle East; it would spark an arms race in the region that would tear the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to shreds; and, most frightening of all, it could, in light of Iran’s repeated threats to wipe another nation off the map, result in the actual use of nuclear weapons,” said the bills sponsor, Rep. Howard L. Berman, before the vote.

Although only 12 representatives voted against the bill, opponents of the legislation argued that the unilateral approach would impose the greatest hardship on the Iranian public, a large number of whom protested the reelection of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June.

“There is nobody in the Iranian government….that’s not going to get their gasoline,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer. “It’s going to be impactful on the people of Iran.”

Major U.S. Jewish groups were nearly all in favour of the legislation.

”[The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)] strongly applauds today’s overwhelming, bipartisan and momentous House passage of the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, legislation that seeks to reinforce American diplomacy by dramatically increasing economic pressure on Iran to stop its illicit pursuit of nuclear weapons,” said a statement released by AIPAC after the bill passed the House.

J Street, the new “pro-Israel, pro-peace”, endorsed the legislation last week.

Americans for Peace Now (APN), which advocates for a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, opposed the sanctions legislation because, ”it is about sanctions that target the Iranian people, in the hope that if the people become miserable enough they will pressure their government to change course. This is a strategy that few experts believe will work, and a strategy that has a very poor track record in other contexts (Iraq, Cuba, Gaza).”

”Indeed, experience has demonstrated with sanctions like these, the most likely and immediate result will be a backlash by the people of Iran against the United States, not against the Iranian regime,” APN concluded.

Although several experts have suggested a vote in the Senate is unlikely before the end of the year, the White House has acknowledged that barring a breakthrough in negotiations with Tehran before the new year, the U.S. will move closer to imposing sanctions.

”I don’t think anyone can doubt that our outreach has produced very little in terms of any kind of a positive response from the Iranians,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters. ”Certainly, additional pressure is going to be called for.”

It was hoped that Tehran would agree to a proposed agreement to export most of its enriched uranium for processing in Russia and France but the chance of Tehran accepting this arrangement seems increasingly unlikely.

The Obama administration has focused its lobbying for sanctions on the international stage in hopes of gaining crucial allies – specifically Russia and China, which hold veto power in the Security Council – if a multilateral sanctions regime is to be agreed upon in the U.N.

In his Nobel Peace Prize speech on Dec. 10, Obama alluded to nuclear weapons programmes in Iran and North Korea and emphasised the importance of enforcing international laws and using multilateral sanctions.

”I believe that we must develop alternatives to violence that are tough enough to actually change behaviour – for if we want a lasting peace, then the words of the international community must mean something. Those regimes that break the rules must be held accountable. Sanctions must exact a real price,” said Obama. ”Intransigence must be met with increased pressure – and such pressure exists only when the world stands together as one.”

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