On Wednesday afternoon, members of the House and Senate gathered for a
conference committee meeting to discuss the bills passed by each house
to impose sanctions on Iran. As I sat down at my desk to write this, I
pulled out my Roget's Thesaurus to see how many synonyms for
"crippling," 'crushing," "overwhelming," "suffocating," and so on there
are. There are a lot. And many of them, including those just mentioned,
were used by members of Congress competing to see strongly each one
could condemn Iran.
It wasn't pretty. Apoplexy was the order of the day.
Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida got the ball rolling,
by demanding "crippling, mandatory sanctions" on Iran. Which caused
everyone who followed to try to outbid her.
The United States can't be satisfied with "semi-sanctions," said
Senator Joe Lieberman, but must instead "marshal the economic,
political, and if necessary [its] military power" against the
"fanatical regime." Representative Gary Ackerman declared that
crippling sanctions weren't strong enough, insisting that the world
must impose "suffocating" sanctions on Iran – and even then, he said,
"success in this effort is unlikely" and that Iran would "have a
nuclear weapon in less than two years." Representative Dan Burton of
Indiana upped the ante, nearly foaming at the mouth while saying that
the military people he talks to say that Iran could have The Bomb
within one year, adding ominously: "We have to do whatever is necessary
to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons." Representative Brad Sherman
of California denounced those who want to impose mere targeted
sanctions on Iranian wrongdoers, declaring: "Smart sanctions are dumb."
We need, he said, "absolutely crippling sanctions." And Representative
Ed Royce thundered that the United States and its allies must impose
"crushing" sanctions, then added: "Even crushing sanctions might not do
Noting that most of the speakers were either rabid, right-wing
Republicans or militantly pro-AIPAC Democrats, I went over to
Representative Barney Frank as the left the room. Is there any way to
stop this runaway train? I asked. "No," he said. And he's glad. Frank
argues that the bill, which as written will compel the president to
impose sanctions on friend and foe alike who sell gasoline and
petroleum products to Iran, will strengthen the president's hand. (The
White House and the State Department, incidentally, oppose the bill,
and they're demanding that the conferees weaken it to give President
Obama some flexibility in implementing its draconian provisions. So, it
would seem, the president doesn't want the help that Congressman Frank
is happily offering.) I pointed out to Frank that the president doesn't
want the bill's help, but Frank said, simply, "It helps him."
Most of the conferees lambasted the White House – and previous
administrations, too – for refusing to implement Iran-bashing
legislation that they'd helpfully enacted in the past. That's because
diplomats and others with cooler heads, including key players in the
administration of George W. Bush, too, realize that sanctioning allies
and imposing harsh penalties on European, Russian, Chinese, and Indian
companies doesn't win friends and influence people. (The Clinton
administration realized the same thing, and President Clinton refused
to impose draconian measures in the 1990s that Congress wanted.) But in
2010, Congress is so mad at Iran, and so unhappy with resistance from
the White House and the State Department, that this time they're going
to write a bill that forces President Obama's hand. "We cannot produce
a bill that is so full of holes, carve-outs, exemptions, and waivers
that no one takes it seriously," said Ros-Lehtinen today.
There's a chance, a small one, that Senator John Kerry, along with
Senator Chris Dodd (the Senate sponsor of the bill) will accede to
administration wishes and water down the bill so that it doesn't tie
the president's hands. To the consternation of the mad dog-like members
of the conference committee, Senator Dodd said, "We will accommodate
the administration's concerns," though he didn't specify exactly how.
And Kerry, sounding glum and resigned – and completely avoiding words
such as crushing, crippling, and suffocating! – said simply that the
threat of congressional action has "helped to focus the world's
attention" on the Iran problem, but he added: "This conference report
is gonna pass." He pointed out that international diplomacy by the
Obama administration, and the talks at the UN Security Council about
sanctions, are proceeding, and that it all may take time.
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And Representative Howard Berman, the bill's sponsor in the House,
suggested that there is a "certain logic" to the administration's
request that the legislation carve out waivers or exemptions for
"cooperating countries" – which, as some members pointed out, could
mean anyone and everyone.
But when it comes to weakening the bill, the rest of the members weren't having any of it.
Representative Mike Pence of Indiana said: "This administration has
spent more time on the threat of global warming than on the threat of a
nuclear Iran." Ignoring the fact that Iran has no nuclear weapon, that
U.S. intelligence agencies say that it will be three to five years
before they can develop a nuclear capability even if they want to, and
that even with a bomb Iran isn't likely to commit suicide by using it,
Pence raised the specter of another Holocaust, warning about a "second,
historic tragedy for our most cherished ally" in the Middle East.
The House passed its version of the sanctions bill last December.
Then, in January, the Senate followed suit. In the next several weeks,
it seems, the House and Senate will reconcile the slight differences
between the two bills and send them to the White House with a huge,
veto-proof majority behind them. The bill requires the administration
to examine any and all contracts between Iran and oil and gasoline
suppliers. Any greater than a tiny threshold – just $200,000 to
$500,000 – trigger a U.S. crackdown, and the president is then required
to place the offending company on a "blacklist." He must then take
strong action against the company, up to and including seizing its
assets in the United States.
Last year, Obama launched his vaunted diplomatic opening to Iran,
which seemed to make progress. Not only did the opening to Iran
encourage the dissident and reformist opposition last spring, but it
led top officials of Iran to sit down with American diplomats over the
summer and fall and to sign an accord on October 1 in Geneva that
seemed to be a breakthrough: Iran agreed to send nearly all of its
enriched uranium to Russia and France for reprocessing into fuel rods
for a medical reactor. But that accord fell apart, victim in part to
internal firefights within Iran's fractured political system. What
comes next, for Obama, isn't clear. He's pushing hard on what he,
Robert Gates, and Hillary Clinton call "the pressure track" now, and he
wants the UN to impose a fourth round of sanctions, with the support of
Russia and China. Beyond that, it seems that the United States is
planning to impose tougher unilateral sanctions on Iran, too, beginning
this summer, that would include severe financial sanctions and cut-offs
of investment and technology to Iran by U.S. allies in Europe, Asia,
And then what? The administration has pretty much ruled out military
action, despite what Lieberman and Dick Cheney want. They insist that
they want to keep the diplomatic track open. But where do sanctions
lead? As the hawks point out, correctly, even crushing, crippling, and
suffocating sanctions aren't likely to persuade Iran to cave in. It
seems like a formula for failure and stalemate.