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White House Blocks Congress on Iran

Washington — The Bush White House is sending a mixed message regarding sanctions on Iran — pushing for international measures on the one hand, while on the other, promising to block congressional attempts to impose sanctions.

The issue re-emerged on September 9, when the administration sent a letter to Congress threatening to veto the National Defense Authorization Act or any other bill that includes tougher sanctions against Iran.

The administration’s reluctance to cede foreign policy responsibility to Congress is behind its refusal to allow lawmakers to move on their own with measures that are meant to block Iran from obtaining nuclear capability.

The reluctance also reflects a concern within the Bush White House that undertaking unilateral steps might undermine attempts to form an international coalition against Iran, and that it could deter Europe and Russia from taking action against Iran.

In the September 9 Statement of Administration Policy sent to Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the White House provided a list of amendments that would likely trigger a presidential veto. The letter said that President Bush’s “senior advisers would recommend that he veto the bill” if those amendments were attached.

The Defense Authorization Act is widely viewed as a “must pass” piece of legislation and might be the only bill signed into law before the congressional session ends in early January 2009. For this reason, lawmakers have been attempting to attach their own legislation to the bill, hoping the administration will allow it in order to save the overall spending bill needed for the funding of military operations.

Senators want to attach two Iran-related bills to the current defense authorization bill. The first, sponsored by Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman, calls on the United States not to sign a new nuclear cooperation treaty (known as a 1-2-3 agreement) with Russia until Moscow proves that it has suspended all nuclear assistance to Iran and has withdrawn all its forces from Georgia. In the position paper sent to Congress, the administration calls this measure “most objectionable.”

Other expected attached measures are two pieces of legislation coming from the Senate Banking Committee and the Senate Finance Committee, both aimed at closing loopholes and toughening sanctions against Iran. These measures, too, were rejected by the administration, which argued that they would complicate America’s international standing on this issue. “The bills would also serve, if enacted, to divide the multilateral coalition that has come together to oppose Iran’s nuclear programs,” the White House letter states.

Most of the legislation regarding sanctions against Iran, which is strongly supported by the pro-Israel lobby, is expected to die in the banking and finance committees if not attached to a larger “must pass” bill. Since the 110th Congress ends in January 2009, there is little time to bring legislation to the floor, so most of the bills still in committee will die.

Still, pro-Israel activists are stressing that while the legislation itself has not been approved, many of the measures offered in these bills have already been enacted by the administration, including freezing assets of Iran’s main bank and sanctioning shipping companies.

The administration made clear in its letter that while opposing legislation on this issue, it still supports international pressure on Iran to end its nuclear program. On September 15, White House National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe warned Iran that it must suspend uranium enrichment “or face further implementation of the existing United Nations Security Council sanctions and the possibility of new sanctions.”


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