Like Israel, pro-Israel activists in Washington have avoided taking sides on Iran’s internal issues. But even before Iran’s June 12 election, they were pushing hard for legislation that would impose tough measures against Tehran. And the unrest and government repression now taking place there appear to have bolstered their cause.
On June 23, the House Appropriations Committee approved legislation that would prevent the Export-Import Bank of the United States from providing loan guarantees to companies selling refined petroleum to Iran. The legislation, an amendment to the must-pass foreign operations bill, which President Obama is unlikely to veto, was backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Its sponsor, Republican Mark Kirk of Illinois, and California Democrat Brad Sherman, the amendment’s other key backer, are both close to the pro-Israel lobby.
Kirk’s amendment targets the Indian oil company Reliance, which has received $900 million in loan guarantees from the Export-Import Bank and is one of Iran’s main gasoline suppliers. The bill will now go to the House floor for a vote, where its approval appears certain, to be followed by reconciliation with a Senate version of the same bill.
Meanwhile, another bill that would have far more comprehensive impact on Iran remains, by Obama’s request, on hold in the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, which is chaired by California Democrat Howard Berman. The bill, one of AIPAC’s top legislative priorities, calls for sanctions against all firms exporting refined petroleum to Iran. But for the present, Obama does not want sanctions to interfere with his plans to reach out to Tehran diplomatically in an effort to curb its nuclear development drive.
Nevertheless, as violence surged against Iranian protesters, that bill seemed to be gathering additional support. In the Senate, four more co-sponsors have signed on to the bill since the June 12 Iranian elections, bringing the total to 60 in the 100-seat body. The House version got another 22 co-sponsors since the elections, and now has a total of 196.
Meanwhile, both the House and Senate have, by lopsided margins, passed nonbinding resolutions condemning the repression in Iran. Republicans vowed to push for passage of the petroleum sanctions bill next.
Keith Weissman, AIPAC’s former top Iran analyst, strenuously disagreed with such initiatives, at least FOR right now. “The best policy now is, ‘Do no harm,’” he said.
Neither sanctions nor diplomatic engagement has meaning now, since the country is in internal turmoil, Weissman explained: “What AIPAC is doing here is hurting the very people the U.S. and the rest of world would like to assist in Iran. Any kind of message like this just proves what the bad guys in Iran have been saying to their people for years. It makes it easier for them to hurt the people Obama is trying to help.
“I hope that when American Jews and the organized community look at it, they will say: ‘Hold on a minute. Let’s wait and see what happens.’”
But Minority Leader Eric Cantor, the House’s lone Jewish Republican, said: “If the U.S. is going to negotiate with a terrorist regime, let’s at least go in and say we want results. And results will only come if there is pressure.”
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.