Iran Sanctions Bill Languishes in Senate

By Nathan Guttman

Published May 13, 2008, issue of May 23, 2008.
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Washington — The legislative centerpiece of pro-Israel advocacy, aimed at toughening sanctions against Iran, has been struggling to win congressional approval.

The Iran Counter-Proliferation Act was first introduced by the late California Democrat Tom Lantos and is viewed as the main legislative attempt to ensure strict sanctions against Tehran.

The bill was approved in the House of Representatives with an overwhelming majority and was introduced in the Senate with more than 70 senators signing on as co-sponsors. But it now faces opposition in the Senate and the Bush administration because of the legislation’s current language, which pushes for Russia to play a more positive role in pressuring Iran.

It has become apparent that the bill’s ambitious goals of bypassing the administration on the sanctions issue and tying relations with Russia to Moscow’s cooperation are difficult to achieve.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee has been pushing heavily for the passage of the bill and is expected to launch a major lobbying effort for its approval next month, when the group convenes its annual policy conference in Washington.

In an April 1 memo put out by Aipac on this issue, the pro-Israel lobby stresses the importance of keeping the measures regarding Russia in the bill, arguing that a new bilateral nuclear agreement “is worth tens of billions of dollars to Russia” and that conditioning the deal on Russia’s cooperation regarding Iran “may help convince Moscow to end its prior willingness to develop Iran’s nuclear sector.”

In an April 8 hearing held by the Senate Finance Committee, several experts on the issue expressed their view that tying nuclear cooperation with Russia to its behavior on the Iranian issue might be a mistake.

William Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, told the committee that barring a new nuclear agreement with Russia because of its activity in Iran would be “counterproductive” and would not help the efforts to block a nuclear Iran.

On the other hand, Danielle Pletka, the American Enterprise Institute’s vice president of foreign and defense policy studies, criticized the Bush administration for opposing the Russian conditions in the legislation.

“Russia has been the main roadblock in toughening United Nations sanctions on Iran,” Pletka said.

The committee did not reach a conclusion about tying the Russian deal to Moscow’s cooperation on the Iranian issue. According to a Capitol Hill source, the language still could undergo changes in order to ensure its passage and to prevent a presidential veto.

Meanwhile, a group of senators led by Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman and Indiana Democrat Evan Bayh began circulating a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, calling on her to halt progress on a new bilateral nuclear agreement with Russia.

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