Opinion: The Wrecking Ball
by ROBERT DREYFUSS in Washington, D.C.
14 Dec 2009 21:07
But Senator Jacob Javits of New York had other ideas. Against Cutler's advice, Javits introduced a resolution in the U.S. Senate that denounced Khomeini. "I urged him not to attack Khomeini personally," said Cutler. To no avail. Khomeini reacted angrily to the Javits resolution. He refused to accept Cutler as the U.S. envoy, who never took up the post. Relations between the United States and Iran spiraled downwards from there.
This week, Representative Howard Berman is taking up the Javits wrecking ball. For months, Berman has sat on a piece of legislation, HR 2194, the Iran Refined Petroleum Act, that would give the president enhanced power to impose what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls "crippling sanctions" against Iran. According to the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), which opposes the bill, it would "expand unilateral, extraterritorial sanctions and target companies exporting refined petroleum to Iran or helping to develop Iran's oil refining industry." Sensing that the talks with Iran are not moving forward, Berman -- pushed hard by hawks, neoconservatives, and the Israel lobby, from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to J Street -- has decided that the time is right.
Berman's action coincides with what appears to be a growing consensus within the Obama administration that the talks with Iran are going nowhere. Indeed, it seems as if the administration is on the verge of breaking off talks with Iran and pressing for a new round of economic sanctions. Last spring, Obama suggested December 31 as a deadline of sorts for Iran to show progress in talks over its nuclear enrichment program. As that unofficial deadline nears, the administration, pressured by an alliance of hawks, is openly signaling that it's ready to conclude that Iran won't budge.
That's unfortunate. When they began, it should have been obvious that the talks with Iran would have many ups and downs, and that they might take many months, if not several years, to reach a positive conclusion. Yet the Obama administration seems to be laboring under the illusion that the problem with Iran is a crisis whose urgency demands immediate resolution. In fact, even if Iran is building the capacity to become a nuclear-armed power, it is several years away at least from having the industrial and technological ability to enrich its uranium to weapons grade, manufacture a bomb, build a nuclear warhead, and develop the capability to deliver that warhead. Given that reality, there's no reason why the administration can't extend the talks well beyond the supposed deadline of December 31. Virtually all Iranian analysts agree that the post-June 12 political turmoil in Iran makes it very difficult for Iran's leadership to make the sort of concessions required to move the negotiations forward. And, so far at least, the Obama administration has not budged from the Bush administration's unrealistic demand that Iran must suspend and eventually abandon its nuclear enrichment program.
Since last winter, Berman held back on HR 2194, his own bill, because he did not want to appear to be interfering with Obama's opening to Iran. No longer. The House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on HR 2194 on Tuesday, and its passage by an overwhelming majority is certain.
To be sure, the sort of sanctions envisioned by Berman's bill aren't likely to be enacted. The bill gives the president the power to impose strong unilateral sanctions on Iran, but it isn't clear yet that he will do so. If he does, it's very unlikely that the rest of the world will go along. Neither Russia nor China, which have invited Iran to take part in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, will support an embargo on gasoline and refined oil products against Iran, and other countries, such as India, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey, won't go along either. And if the United States goes back to the UN Security Council for another round of more limited, targeted sanctions, the best it's likely to get is a symbolic slap on the wrist for Tehran, if that.
But the real impact of the Berman bill is psychological. Like the Javits resolution three decades ago, it will inflame Iranian hawks, put Iran's reformist opposition on the defensive, and make it far more difficult for Iran's divided leadership to make concessions in the future talks with the United States and its partners in the P5+1.
It's certainly possible that the administration has given Berman the green light to move the bill forward. In the strongest statement so far by an administration official, Secretary of Defense Gates told a group of U.S. soldiers in Iraq last week that new sanctions on Iran are likely.
"Iran's stiffing the international community on some of the proposals that they actually agreed to at the beginning of October, I think has brought the international community, including the Russians and the Chinese, together in a way that they have not been in terms of significant additional sanctions on the Iranians," he said. "I think that you're going to see some significant additional sanctions imposed by the international community, assuming that the Iranians don't change course and agree to do the things that they signed up to do at the beginning of October."
That doesn't mean that Gates is endorsing -- at least not yet -- the provocative and almost war-like measures supported by the Berman bill. Practically speaking, the only way to impose an embargo on Iranian gasoline imports would be through a naval blockade, an act of war. And if President Obama tries to enforce the Berman bill's sanctions on other countries or on oil companies and shipping firms that do business with Iran, it's certain to result in a dramatic international showdown.
That doesn't deter the hawks. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, suggested in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times that Iran's economy could be made to "crumble." She wrote:
"The United States must be prepared to act alone, if necessary, and with every weapon in its political and economic arsenal. The Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act is one such tool. This legislation, which I coauthored, has the support of more than 300 members of the House, and it is urgent that this bill reaches the president's desk before the end of the year. It targets one of Iran's major weaknesses -- namely, its dependency on foreign gasoline and other refined petroleum products. By placing financial sanctions on U.S. and foreign companies providing these crucial resources, Iran's economic lifeline would be severed and its already weak economy would crumble."
A panoply of hawkish organizations has mobilized for the Berman bill, including AIPAC, the Israel Project, the neoconservative Foreign Policy Initiative, and the newly formed group United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), one of whose founders, Dennis Ross, is a top White House official.
Caught in the middle is the European Union. The EU, which has extensive trade and economic relations with Iran, is reportedly considered an end-of-January deadline for a discussion of Iranian sanctions. "Iran's persistent failure to meet its international obligations and Iran's apparent lack of interest in pursuing negotiations require a clear response, including through appropriate measures," according to a draft of an EU resolution discussed recently in Brussels. "The European Union stands ready to take the necessary steps." Even so, it doesn't seem likely that the EU would consider harsh measures, such as a gasoline embargo, against Iran.
According to Newsweek, the Obama administration is thinking about new sanctions that would target Iran's Revolutionary Guard, a plan cooked up by Stuart Levey, the Bush-era official who was reappointed in February as the undersecretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence. Reports the magazine:
"The White House has approved an aggressive plan to squeeze Iran's economy, and Levey will be at the center of it, the senior administration official says. One key target will be the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the force that has largely taken control of the country and its economy. ...
"The plan is for Levey's office to publicly identify "dozens" of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps front companies and then pressure suppliers and trading partners to cut off ties--or risk being sanctioned by the U.S. government, says the senior administration official."
Despite Secretary of State Clinton's call, earlier this year, for "crippling sanctions" on Iran, State Department officials are less than enthusiastic about the idea. One official involved in U.S. Iran policy suggests, without much enthusiasm, that new sanctions might help prod Iran back to the bargaining table with new concessions in hand. But in fact, the reverse seems more likely.
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