Congress Gives Obama Deadline For Dealing With Iran

By Nathan Guttman

Published July 29, 2009, issue of August 07, 2009.
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With prospects for diplomatic engagement between the United States and Iran dimming, congressional leaders have set September as the deadline after which harsh sanctions against the Islamic Republic will be rolled out.

Jewish groups have made tough sanctions against Iran a top priority and have been urging Congress to take on legislation targeting Iran’s soft spots — its dependence on imported gasoline and on international investment.

The main piece of legislation awaiting approval is the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, which would impose sanctions on international oil companies selling refined gasoline and diesel to Iran. Despite its extensive oil production, Iran imports 40% of its refined petroleum products, and blocking these sales would, some experts say, bring the country’s economy to its knees.

At a July 22 Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, the committee’s chairman, Rep. Howard Berman, made it clear that he intends to push the legislation forward by the fall, unless diplomatic engagement with Iran bears fruit.

“If engagement doesn’t work, then I am prepared to mark up the bill in committee early this fall,” the California Democrat said.

Berman had introduced the legislation in April but immediately put it on hold, in order to allow the Obama administration time to reach out to Tehran with its offer of diplomatic engagement. More than half of the members in both houses of Congress have signed on as co-sponsors of the legislation.

“It is now late July,” Berman said at the hearing, “close enough to the administration’s time-limit, and to my own, that Iran should be able to hear the clock ticking.”

In recent weeks, Congress has been sending a message to the Obama administration, making it clear that it will not wait past September to take up tough sanctions. In addition to the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, hearings are planned for the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act, which would pave the way for divestment of American funds from companies doing business with Iran.

Members of both chambers of Congress have also introduced measures targeting other sectors of Iran’s economy.

The Obama administration has indicated privately and publicly that it set the fall as a deadline for assessment of the effort to reach out to Iran.

September is also a critical juncture in Washington’s efforts to coordinate policy toward Iran with its allies. Two significant international gatherings are scheduled for September: the United Nations General Assembly in New York and the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking at a July 28 press conference in Jerusalem, said the United States would like to receive a response from Iran before these meetings take place. “It is not an open-ended offer,” Gates said.

The organized Jewish community is gearing up for a showdown on Iran in September. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations is putting together two high-profile events focused on the need to stop Iran’s nuclear program. The first will take place in Washington September 10 when Jewish leaders from across the country are expected to arrive for an intensive lobbying drive, and the second will be a mass rally outside U.N. headquarters in New York during the visit of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee has put the Iran sanctions bills at the top of its legislative priorities list and has been calling on members of Congress to join the sanctions bills as co-sponsors and to push them through the legislative process. Similar messages were conveyed to lawmakers recently by Christian supporters of Israel and by Jewish leaders who met with Democratic senators on July 22.

Yet at least one leading Jewish lawmaker has said he doubts the potential effectiveness of sanctions. Rep. Gary Ackerman, who chairs the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, told his colleagues during the July 22 committee hearing that he fears “it may already be too late for sanctions.” Ackerman, a New York Democrat, argued that the Iranian regime is not vulnerable to economic pressure. “This is reality: Iran is marching swiftly towards either a bomb or a latent nuclear capability,” he said.

His position does not reflect the prevailing view among his fellow lawmakers or among Middle East experts. They say that Tehran has shown in the past that it is susceptible to outside pressure, and that the Iranian regime could change course on the nuclear program if it believed it was in danger.

Members of Congress, however, are also bracing for the possibility that come September they will receive a request from the White House to put off sanctions legislation once again, if talks with allies produce an agreement on international sanctions. “I don’t think they will get a free ride from Congress,” said a senior Democratic congressional staff member. “They will have to put on the table something very specific that our allies are willing to give.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com






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