Washington - On the eve of its major policy conference, the pro-Israel lobby is backing new congressional legislation that would toughen sanctions against Iran and target foreign entities doing business with the Islamic Republic.
Increasing economic pressure on Iran will be one of the main lobbying objectives for the 5,500 activists attending the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in Washington. In their meetings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Aipac members will push the new legislation, which is expected to be formally rolled out later this week and is being introduced by Democratic Rep. Tom Lantos of California, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. The bill seeks to close loopholes in previous measures that failed to deal with third countries or foreign companies conducting business with Iran.
A separate piece of legislation, introduced Tuesday by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, calls for mandatory divestment from Iran. The bill prohibits American pension plans and mutual funds from investing in Iran and requires full disclosure of such investments currently under way.
“By reducing our investments in Iran, we hamper the deadly ambitions of a regime heavily dependent on income earned from oil and natural gas,” Ros-Lehtinen said. The measures proposed by Lantos and Ros-Lehtinen represent a renewed interest in applying economic pressure on Iran, based on the assumption that Tehran is vulnerable to international sanctions. This view is now shared by the bulk of Iran analysts in the government, and at think tanks in Washington, who believe that the regime in Tehran is worried that economic difficulties threaten its rule.
“All the evidence we have proves that economic pressure on Iran does work,” said a Democratic congressional aide who is involved in Iran issues.
The legislation proposed by Lantos argues that stepping up the economic pressure on Iran should be seen as a means of proving that military action is not necessarily needed to thwart Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. It includes a clause stating clearly that the bill does not give the administration any authorization to use military force against Iran.
In congressional testimony this week, Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns, the administration’s point man on Iran, said that the international sanctions imposed last year by the United Nations Security Council were working better than he had expected. “When they were passed in December,” Burns said, “I did not anticipate that they would have the impact they have had, but they have had an impact.”
One of the most significant measures in the new bill proposed by Lantos is the curtailment of the president’s ability to waive the sanctions. It also provides increased congressional oversight regarding the way the administration implements the legislation. These more stringent steps reflect the discontent in Congress with the administration’s strategy for dealing with the existing anti-Iranian sanctions that were put in place more than a decade ago. Sources close to the issue point out, for example, that only one foreign company was ever investigated for investing in Iran’s energy sector — and even then it was not punished, because President Clinton chose to use his waiver authority to block the sanctions.
“Until now, abusing its waiver authority and other flexibility in the law, the Executive Branch has never sanctioned any foreign oil company that invested in Iran. Those halcyon days for the oil industry are over,” Lantos said Tuesday during a hearing on the issue. “The corporate barons running giant oil companies — who have cravenly turned a blind eye to Iran’s development of nuclear weapons — have come to assume that the Iran Sanctions Act will never be implemented. This charade will now come to a long-overdue end.”
The administration, while supportive of sanctions against Iran, is still a step behind Congress on this issue. Speaking at the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday, Burns cautioned against steps that might “sanction allies” of the United States and deter countries that have joined forces with America to pressure Iran.
The legislation also goes after American companies that trade with Iran through their foreign subsidiaries and calls for banning them from receiving tax benefits for gas and oil exploration. One company that had been widely criticized for conducting business with Iran through a foreign subsidiary was Halliburton, formerly headed by Vice President Dick Cheney.
Lantos’s bill would also block any kind of imports from Iran (including small items, such as caviar), limit American exports to Iran and prevent nuclear cooperation with countries that assist Iran’s nuclear program. There is also a call to withhold funds from the World Bank equal to the amounts it provides Iran and to block free-trade agreements with countries that support Iran.
The Iranian issue is expected to be at the top of the agenda when thousands of Aipac activists take to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, the last day of their annual policy conference. They are expected to call on members of Congress to support the new sanctions bill and other measures meant to apply pressure on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s regime.
Another pro-Israel group, The Israel Project, launched an ad campaign this week, calling for increased economic pressure on Iran. “Did you know that several companies that do business with Iran are traded on the New York Stock Exchange?” asks the advertisement, which was mailed to 60,000 reporters, policy-makers and pro-Israel activists.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, who heads the project, said that it is time to use the “power of the purse” to counter Iran. “As individuals, we can take a look at our retirement plan and see if it is helping Iran’s nuclear program,” Laszlo Mizrahi said.
Other items on Aipac’s lobbying agenda next week will include ensuring continued American aid to Israel and voicing opposition to the new Palestinian national unity deal, which does not require Hamas to recognize Israel.
A congressional letter expected next week will express the dismay in Congress over the new Palestinian government and reiterate the opposition on Capitol Hill to any American aid to the Palestinians before the Hamas-Fatah government recognizes Israel, agrees to honor past agreements and disavows violence.
Some members of Congress have already taken action on this issue.
In a letter sent to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday, leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee asked the administration to reconsider an $86 million aid package for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s forces, because of the national unity agreement he signed withHamas. “The fact that Fatah will now join a government led by Hamas terrorists, and will do so with Abbas’s blessing, raises serious questions about the commitments and loyalties of the Palestinian security forces we had undertaken to assist,” the letter reads. Lantos and Ros-Lehtinen, as well as Democratic Rep. Gary Ackerman of New York and Republican Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, the respective chair and ranking minority member of the House subcommittee on the Middle East, signed it.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.