Iran's mullahs, once fearful of meeting the same fate as the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, have become the main beneficiaries of the U.S. quagmire in Iraq. And they have ramped up their defiance over the current wedge issue in the twisted path of U.S.-Iranian relations: the nuclear programme.
The recent conservative consolidation of Iran's Parliament, coupled with the announcement last week that 6,000 new advanced centrifuges were up and running at the Natanz uranium-enrichment facility, suggest that U.S. pressure alone -- in the form of unilateral economic sanctions -- has not deterred Iran from continuing its drive towards mastering the nuclear fuel cycle.
While the President George W. Bush administration has maintained a consistent policy supporting rigid sanctions against Tehran, a bill currently making its way through the Senate may potentially further undermine the international support Washington seeks to confront Iran and "change its behaviour".
As Washington tries to bolster international cooperation over how to deal with Iran's nuclear programme, the domestic push for Congressionally-mandated sanctions has been spearheaded by lobby groups such as the Israel Project, the neo-conservative think-tank Center for Security Policy (CSP) and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
The Iran Counter-Proliferation Act of 2007, known as S. 970, amends the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996 to directly address the nuclear issue, and would impose sanctions on Iran and countries doing business with it.
The House version of the bill, H.R. 1400, sponsored by the late Rep. Tom Lantos of California, passed the House by a vote of 397 in favour and 16 against.
AIPAC has used its muscle to shape and mold certain divestment bills in state legislatures across the U.S., and in the absence of explicit support from the White House, it is, according to William A. Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, "the major group lobbying for this bill".
The bill, which has 70 cosponsors almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, would subject Russia to specified energy cooperation prohibition against Iran unless Moscow suspends nuclear assistance and transfers of conventional weapons and missiles to Iran, and until Iran dismantles its nuclear enrichment-related programmes.
Instead of engendering more Russian cooperation on Iran, S. 970 will most likely weaken Moscow's willingness to cooperate with the U.S. in blocking Iran's nuclear efforts.
"This is a case where the president is engaged in the delicate process of getting both allies and not-so allies -- China and Russia -- to cooperate with us on sanctions," said Reinsch, at a roundtable discussion last Friday. "Beating their companies over the head with a stick, which is what this bill will do, is not what we need."
In 2006, Congress withheld 60 percent of U.S. foreign aid to Russia because of its continued assistance to Iran's nuclear and ballistic missiles programmes.
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Furthermore, by codifying an executive order, S. 970 removes the flexibility the president would need to offer incentives or to respond effectively in the event of positive developments from Tehran.
Phillip H. Gordon of the Brookings Institute told a Senate Finance Committee hearing last Friday that while he supported many measures of the bill, some of them were "such blunt instruments" that would further undermine international cooperation with Washington.
Section 8 of the bill imposes sanctions on U.S. subsidiaries of foreign companies, which could lead the countries in which those are companies are based to challenge the bill at the World Trade Organisation.
"Most countries, even among our closest allies, reject the extraterritorial application of U.S. sanctions and they are willing to act to defend the principle that countries may not impose their own foreign policy priorities on other countries by taking action against their firms," said Gordon.
U.S. sanctions have had a minimal effect, mainly because Russia and China have not stopped assisting Tehran in its nuclear goals, but also because Iran has already survived through three decades of unilateral U.S. sanctions.
Despite the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate saying that Iran had suspended its nuclear weapons programme based on rational cost-benefit analysis, the consensus among most Washington Beltway insiders is that Iran's advancement in the nuclear fuel cycle will allow it to develop nuclear weapons if it so chooses, and that is a possibility that is unacceptable.
Three rounds of U.N. Security Council sanctions on Iran have not produced the desired effect. Last week, Iran rejected European overtures to halt its uranium enrichment programme in return for incentives. "Iran does not trade its rights in return for incentives," government spokesman Ghalm Hossein Elham told reporters, according to the Associated Press.
"The Islamic Republic of Iran doesn't need incentives from Europe to obtain its rights," he said, adding, however, that Iran was open to dialogue with Europe over its nuclear programme.
The Washington view on sanctions against Iran -- which critics describe as a substitute for real diplomatic engagement with Tehran -- has analysts agreeing on the problem but diverging over how to confront it.
"It is obvious that the limited multilateral sanctions now in effect will not have their desired effect. Than what? If war is off the table, submission and tribute will remain," said Danielle Pletka of the neo-conservative New American Enterprise Institute.
"This leaves us with the hope that harsher and more effective economic sanctions can raise the cost to Iran of pursuing nuclear weapons and change the calculus of decision-makers in Tehran," she said.
Senior officials from the major powers dealing with Iran -- the U.S., France, Germany, Britain, Russia and China -- are due to meet on Apr. 16 in Shangai to discuss what the next steps should be against Iran.
© 2008 Inter Press Service