WASHINGTON - In a significant and highly unusual defeat for the so-called "Israel Lobby", the Democratic leadership of the House of Representatives has decided to shelve a long-pending, albeit non-binding, resolution that called for President George W. Bush to launch what critics called a blockade against Iran.
House Congressional Resolution (HR) 362, whose passage the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) had made its top legislative priority this year, had been poised to pass virtually by acclamation last summer.
But an unexpectedly strong lobbying effort by a number of grassroots Iranian-American, Jewish-American, peace, and church groups effectively derailed the initiative, although AIPAC and its supporters said they would try to revive it next year or if Congress returns to Washington for a "lame-duck" session after the November elections.
Congress, which may still adopt a package of new unilateral economic sanctions against Iran -- some of which the administration has already imposed -- over the weekend, is expected to adjourn over the next several days.
''We'll resubmit it when Congress comes back, and we'll have even more signatures,'' the resolution's main author, New York Democrat Rep. Gary Ackerman, told the Washington Times, adding that the resolution currently has 270 co-sponsors, or some two-thirds of the House's entire membership.
Still, the decision by the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Howard Berman, to shelve HR 362 marked an unusual defeat for AIPAC, according to its critics who charged that the resolution was designed to lay the groundwork for the Bush administration or any successor administration to take military action against Iran.
"This was a joint effort by several groups to really put the focus on the dangers presented by such a resolution over the opposition of one of the most powerful lobbies in the country," said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).
Among other provisions, the resolution declared that preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capacity was "vital to the national security interests of the United States" -- language that is normally used to justify military action -- and "demand(ed) that the President initiate an international effort to immediately and dramatically increase the economic, political and diplomatic pressure on Iran to verifiably suspend its nuclear enrichment activities..."
Among the means it called for were "prohibiting the export to Iran of all refined petroleum products; imposing stringent inspection requirements on all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains and cargo entering or departing Iran; and prohibiting the international movement of all Iranian officials not involved in negotiating the suspension of Iran's nuclear programme."
Although the resolution's sponsors explicitly denied it -- indeed, one clause stated that "nothing in this resolution shall be construed as an authorisation of the use of force against Iran" -- the resolution's critics charged that the latter passage could be used to justify a blockade against Iran, an act of war under international law.
"Ambiguity in the text of the resolution -- whether intended by its drafters or not -- has led some to see it as a de-facto approval for a land, air and sea blockade of Iran, any of which could be considered an act of war," according to Deborah DeLee, president of Americans for Peace Now (APN), a Zionist group that has long urged the administration to engage in direct talks with Tehran and that lobbied against the resolution.
Two key Democratic congressmen, who had initially co-sponsored the resolution, Reps. Robert Wexler and Barney Frank, unexpectedly defected in July, insisting that its language be changed to exclude any possibility that it could be used to justify war against Iran and to include new provisions urging Washington to directly engage Tehran.
The resolution was introduced last May, shortly after AIPAC's annual meeting during which then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reportedly told the House Democratic leadership, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Berman, and Ackerman that economic sanctions against Iran had run their course and that stronger action, including a possible naval quarantine, was needed to increase pressure on Tehran to halt its nuclear programme.
The meeting also followed talks between Olmert and Bush who, despite an strongly hawkish speech before Israel's Knesset, privately told his hosts that Washington would almost certainly not attack on Iranian nuclear facilities nor give a green light Israel to launch an attack of its own before he leaves office in January 2009, according to a recent account by London's Guardian newspaper. The administration itself never took a position on the resolution.
At the time, the price of oil was skyrocketing, and the military brass in the Pentagon, increasingly concerned about the deteriorating situations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, was expressing its opposition to military action against Iran in unusually blunt terms.
Nonetheless, AIPAC pushed hard for adoption of the resolution, even as it, like its Congressional sponsors, insisted that it was not designed to justify military action.
Just last week, in a final push for the resolution's passage, AIPAC drafted a letter that was circulated to House members who had not yet co-sponsored the resolution. While it denounced as "utter nonsense" suggestions that the resolution could be used to justify military action, the text also stressed that Tehran's "pursuit of nuclear weapons and regional hegemony" posed "real and growing" threats to "the vital national security interests of the United States".
AIPAC's failure was particularly notable given the presence at the U.N. General Assembly in New York this week of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose repeated and predictably provocative predictions about the demise of Israel and "the American empire" have been used routinely by AIPAC to rally public and elite opinion against Tehran and underline the threat it allegedly poses.
In announcing that the resolution has been shelved, Berman said he shared critics' concerns about the resolution's working and will not bring it before his committee until his concerns were addressed. "If Congress is to make a statement of policy, it should encompass a strategy on how to gain consensus on multilateral sanctions to change Iran's behaviour,'' his spokesperson told the Times.
Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy, and particularly the neo-conservative influence in the Bush administration, can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.