Monday, April 27, 2009
More Democrats call for tough Iran sanctions
Politico David S. Cloud April 26, 2009 06:20 PM EST Democrats in Congress are joining Republicans in calling for tough new sanctions on Iran and warning the Obama administration that its policy of engagement shouldn’t last too long before turning to harsher steps aimed at halting Tehran’s nuclear program. This week, as many as 20 senators, including several senior Democrats in the House and Senate, are expected to join in introducing a bill that would authorize sanctions against companies involved in supplying gasoline and other refined petroleum products to Iran. A similar bill is also in the works in the House. Last month, seven senior Democrats, including Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), warned President Barack Obama against “open-ended engagement with Iran.” The administration is so far moving on a slower timetable, refusing to commit itself to new sanctions until it sees whether its diplomatic outreach to Iran produces results. Administration officials aren’t complaining about the new bills, saying privately it’s not so bad to have Congress threatening Iran with sanctions; it might make the direct talks that the U.S. is offering Tehran along with its allies and Russia that much more productive. But the pressure on the White House to abandon its outreach to Tehran is only likely to grow as months pass, raising the possibility of a tactical split between Obama and members of his own party on his most high-risk foreign policy initiative. See also Pelosi playing defense on torture Cantor, Obama let sparks fly Dorgan emerges as Obama's Dem foe “I don’t think there’s anything inconsistent about moving on both fronts — maximum sanctions and maximum negotiations,” said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade. Sherman and Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), are co-sponsoring their own measure targeting Iran’s gasoline imports, which the oil-rich nation takes in because it cannot refine all the gasoline it needs. Such a step could dramatically heighten pressure on Iran to reach a deal on its nuclear program — and escalate tensions with Washington. In effect, it would represent an attempt by the U.S. to cripple the already-strained Iranian economy to force Iran to buckle. Tehran insists its nuclear program is for producing civilian power, but it has refused for years to suspend production of low-enriched uranium, despite three sets of U.N. Security Council sanctions as well as unilateral U.S. and European measures against its financial system. So far, Iran has sent mixed signals about its willingness to make a far-reaching deal, one that would freeze its nuclear program in return for better ties with the U.S. and international assistance with a civilian nuclear program. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad repeated to ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos in an interview broadcast Sunday that Iran is preparing a response to an offer of direct talks from the U.S. and other major international powers on the nuclear issue. Asked if Iran would accept talks without preconditions, as Obama suggested during the presidential campaign, the Iranian leader said: “No, no. We should just have a clear-cut framework for talks. The agenda should be clear.” Congressional critics argue that Iran is using delaying tactics to give itself more time to pursue its nuclear ambitions — and that merely threatening a cutoff of Iranian gas imports would be scary enough to Tehran that it would make a diplomatic agreement more likely in coming months. For some members of Congress, this approach has the added benefit of being strongly supported by pro-Israel groups, including the American-Israeli Political Affairs Committee. “AIPAC strongly supports congressional measures to create the leverage we need for continuing diplomatic engagement to have a chance to work,” said Josh Block, a spokesman for the organization. Another scenario is also possible: Threatening Iran with broad sanctions could backfire and cause the regime to cut off negotiations, making a deal on restricting its nuclear program less likely unless the sanctions succeed in seriously damaging the Iranian economy. Supporters of the tougher sanctions point out that, while Obama called for engagement with Iran during the campaign, he also several times endorsed the idea of targeting its gas imports. “If we can prevent them from importing the gasoline that they need,” Obama said during the final presidential debate of the campaign, “that starts changing their cost-benefit analysis. That starts putting the squeeze on them.” Republicans are even signaling that they may seek to make a partisan issue out of the sanctions debate if Obama fails to move forward soon with steps against companies selling gas to Iran. “This is becoming a key focus in looking at whether a sanctions policy is serious or not,” said Kirk. “We could pass a number of other sanctions that would have little or no impact.” Kirk added that he believed administration officials were debating whether it made sense to delay sanctions until after the June elections in Iran to see if a more moderate president is elected. But he argued that, no matter who is elected, Iran was unlikely to make concessions on its nuclear program without the pressure of sanctions. Senior administration officials are not ruling out going after Iran’s gasoline imports. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week that “sanctions are a tool for us to leverage pressure on the Iranian regime,” she said. “And so we are talking with our partners about additional sanctions as part of an incentives-disincentives approach to Iran. It’s a difficult balancing act.” In other words, the administration doesn’t think the time is right to enact the sort of far-reaching steps against companies that sell gasoline to Iran. Defense Secretary Robert Gates argued last month that the best way to get results from Tehran would be with a combination of engagement and pressure. “Diplomacy perhaps if there is enough economic pressure placed on Iran; diplomacy can provide them an open door through which they can walk if they choose to change their policies,” Gates said on “Fox News Sunday.” “And so I think the two go hand in hand, but I think what gets them to the table is economic sanctions.” The question of timing is a key one. The pressure in Congress for quick action on sanctions arises in part because many lawmakers argue that time is growing short to prevent Iran from reaching a point where it will be impossible to halt it from developing a nuclear weapons capability. Israel recently warned that Iran has crossed the technological thresholds necessary for production of a weapon. But Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair told Congress recently that intelligence agencies do not believe Iran has decided to pursue the production of the weapons-grade uranium necessary for a weapon or production of a warhead that could be carried on ballistic missiles. “Our current estimate is that the minimum time at which Iran could technically produce the amount of highly enriched uranium for a single weapon is 2010 to 2015,” he said.