Inter Press Service
Escalating Washington's confrontation with Iran, both houses of Congress Thursday approved a sweeping unilateral sanctions package designed to pressure Tehran into curbing its nuclear programme.
The package, which President Barack Obama is expected to sign into law before the Jul. 4 holiday, would punish foreign companies that do business with Iran's energy sector, with "key Iranian banks", or with enterprises believed to be controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Negotiated by a "conference committee" created to reconcile two versions of sanctions bills passed separately by the House of Representatives and the Senate earlier this year, the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions Accountability and Divestment Act follows approvals by the U.N. Security Council in early June of a fourth round of relatively mild multilateral sanctions and by the European Union (EU) of a stronger set of unilateral sanctions last week.
"The Senate has taken an important step forward today as we pass a conference report that will impose tough new sanctions on Iran," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declared shortly before the bill passed unanimously in the upper chamber.
"We're passing these sanctions because we believe we must stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, a weapon that would surely threaten the security of the United States and Israel," he added. "Our goal is to target Iran where it will hurt the regime the most."
But some critics warned that the sanctions were too broad-gauged and could harm Iran's general population at least as much as the regime.
"Congress had an opportunity to stand with the Iranian people by recalibrating U.S. sanctions to target Iran's government and ease pressures on innocent Iranians," said Jamal Abdi, policy director of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).
"Unfortunately, Congress missed that opportunity and is moving forward with another sanctions measure that imposes pain indiscriminately, making no distinction between the people and the government," he added.
Other Iran specialists warned that the sanctions could prove counterproductive by provoking a nationalistic reaction that would strengthen the regime's hard-liners at the expense of reformists and the opposition Green Movement.
Approval of the new sanctions legislation comes as hawkish forces here, particularly those associated with the right-wing leadership of the "Israel Lobby," escalate their own campaign to press the administration to prepare for military action if sanctions fail to achieve their purpose within a relatively short period.
In a 51-page report released Thursday, the Bipartisan Policy Centre (BPC) argued that Iran could produce a nuclear weapon by October. It said that Washington should, among other steps, urgently "augment the Fifth Fleet presence in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, including the deployment of an additional (aircraft) carrier battle group and minesweepers to the waters off Iran; conduct broad exercises with its allies in the Persian Gulf; …initiate a 'strategic partnership' with Azerbaijan to enhance regional access."
"Only the credible threat of a U.S. military strike can make a peaceful solution possible," said retired ret. Gen. Chuck Wald, who co-authored the report with former Sens. Charles Robb and Dan Coats. "Ultimately, a U.S.-led military strike is a feasible, though risky, option of last resort."
The report, the latest of a series of three issued by the BPC's National Security Initiative over the past 20 months, echoed recent attacks by prominent neo-conservatives on what it called "the growing belief" that the threats posed by a nuclear-armed Iran "could be minimised through a strategy of containment and deterrence".
In addition to undermining U.S. credibility in the region, it declared, "a nuclear-capable Iran would seek to dominate the energy-rich Persian Gulf, threaten Israel's existence, destabilise moderate Arab regimes, subvert U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, embolden radicals, violently oppose the Middle East peace process, and increase support for terrorism and proxy warfare across the region."
Reflecting the growing political pressure for confrontation with Iran, the sanctions bill approved Thursday is significantly tougher than either the House or Senate version that was passed earlier this year. Indeed, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which has made sanctions its top legislative priority for several years, hailed it as "the toughest Iran sanctions bill ever to emerge from Congress."
Instead of focusing almost exclusively on penalising companies that export petrol to Iran, for example, the bill would punish any foreign enterprise involved with the country's energy sector. It also bans U.S. banks from any transactions with foreign banks that do business with companies believed to be controlled by the IRGC.
Lawmakers also rejected White House appeals to grant Obama authority to automatically exempt companies based in countries, notably Russia and China, that are deemed to be cooperating with U.S. policy on Iran.
With strong commercial interests in Iran, both Russia and China opposed U.S. efforts to toughen the sanctions resolution that was approved by the Security Council in early June.
The administration had argued that punishing their companies could jeopardise their future cooperation in the Security Council, where Moscow and Beijing hold veto power. It also argued that the companies of some European and other allies could also be negatively affected unless Obama was given the authority to provide blanket exemptions.
Ultimately, the administration and the Democratic leadership in Congress worked out a compromise under which Obama can waive sanctions against foreign companies in "cooperating countries" on a case-by-case basis so long as he can show that the waiver serves the "national interest".
Nonetheless, key business sectors opposed the package, noting, among other objections, that it could undermine the administration's efforts to maintain international backing for U.S. policy on Iran.
"Just two weeks ago, the administration successfully garnered international support and cooperation to impose additional multilateral U.N. sanctions against Iran," said Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, a lobby representing more than 300 major multinational corporations.
"Given this development, we are deeply concerned about the timing of this legislation and its unintended consequences for legitimate global commerce," he added. "We have and will continue to urge Congress to support the president's multilateral and multilayered diplomacy with Iran."