Politicians, whether hardliners or conciliators, are using last weekend’s swearing in of Iran’s new president Hassan Rohani as a possible foothold to stop that country from gaining nuclear weapons.
“Iran may have a new president, but its march toward a nuclear program continues,” declared Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) But Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) stressed that more important than Iran’s political calendar is its nuclear clock.
Those two members of Congress introduced a House bill to toughen sanctions including greatly restricting Iran’s oil exports and hurting its access to foreign currency. The legislation was overwhelmingly passed by a vote of 400 to 20.
Countries currently purchasing crude oil from Iran will be forced to reduce their combined purchases to a total of 1 million barrels a day within one year if the legislation becomes law. The legislation also bars entry to the United States of any vessel registered in countries that also register Iranian vessels or vessels operating on behalf of Iran.
The bill stated that should Iran acquire nuclear weapons, that would “embolden its already aggressive foreign policy, including its arming of terrorist organizations and other groups, its efforts to destabilize countries in the Middle East and its efforts to target the United States, United States allies and United States interests globally.”
The only area member of Congress to vote against the legislation was Donna Edwards (D-Md.). When asked about her vote, Edwards’ spokesman wrote in an email that “we have no comment.”
The Senate, currently on recess, is expected to approve a similar bill. Meanwhile a letter backed by AIPAC that also called for tougher sanctions and strengthens “the credibility of our option to use military force at the same time we fully explore a diplomatic solution to our dispute with Iran” was signed by 76 senators.
“Until we see a significant slowdown of Iran’s nuclear activities, we believe our nation must toughen sanctions,” reads the letter which was circulated by Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.)
Another letter that has been making the rounds in the Senate is sponsored by Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and calls on President Obama to reinvigorate diplomatic efforts to convince Iran not to develop nuclear weapons. It has the backing of Americans For Peace Now and J Street.
Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow with The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Rohani was elected to try and ease the effects of the international sanctions on the people of Iran. He is not particularly interested in normalizing relations between Iran and the United States.
Rohani only has “partial influence” with the hardliners who run Iran, Khalaji said, adding, “As long as sanctions are relevant, Rohani is relevant.” The hardliners are continuing with their policies but hoping Rohani can get the sanctions eased, he said.
Iran, through Rohani, is showing “a nice face outside Iran” while the hardliners continue to control everything else, according to Khalaji.
The most liberal member of Iran’s new Cabinet is its minister of foreign affairs, which is part of the plan to make Iran seem willing to work with the United States, Khalaji said. However, the rest of the Cabinet is filled with technocrats and intelligence officials.
Mark Dubowitz, executive director at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the House vote to make the sanctions even tougher sends a message to Iran that the ball is in Iran’s court, and the United States is willing to bring that country “to the brink of economic collapse” if it keeps pursing nuclear weapons capabilities.
He expects the Senate to pass a similar legislation, also by a large majority, thereby sending it to Obama for his signature this fall.
Ratcheting up the sanctions does have an effect and is keeping Iran at the negotiating table asking for sanction relief, Dubowitz said. If the sanctions didn’t bother Iran, Rohani never would have won the presidency, he added.
However, “the cautionary note here is that there is no evidence that the sanctions have slowed down” Iran’s nuclear weapons work. “The message to Congress and the administration is sanctions are working but they have not yet worked.”
Included in the House’s legislation is a section designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization. Dubowitz said that “sends an important message” that the Revolutionary Guard, a branch of Iran’s military that is called upon to protect its Islamic system, is a terrorist organization “no different than al-Qaeda.”
Several Jewish organizations commended the House’s backing of tougher sanctions. The World Jewish Congress said the legislation enables Obama to bar companies from doing business in the United States if they carry out significant trade with Iran.
Rabbi Joel Meyers, acting chair of the American Section of WJC, said, “As Iran has continued to flout U.N. and other international sanctions, we are pleased that the United States Congress has made this bold move. We urge the U.S. Senate to follow suit.”
The Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) also praised the tougher sanctions, noting that “the best response to Iran’s relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons capability is further isolation from the international community,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, JCPA president.
“Of course, sanctions are merely a means to an end, and we support the administrations’ ongoing efforts to resolve this issue through diplomacy if possible,” added Larry Gold, JCPA chair.
The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations said it was pleased that members of Congress “will not be deceived by the attempted portrayal of the president [Rohani] as a moderate when in fact his history and his statements are far to the contrary. He is just one of a few candidates selected out of seven hundred that got the approval and clearly met the ideological and political standards set by the Supreme Leader,” said Robert G. Sugarman, chairman, and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman/CEO.
The legislation, entitled Nuclear Iran Prevention Act, had 378 co-sponsors. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who also introduced the bill, referred to Rohani as a “so-called ‘moderate’ ” and noted that he “has done nothing to change two important facts: Iran is still pursing nuclear weapons capability, and the Supreme Leader is still the leader and decision-maker of Iran’s military and nuclear program.”
Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) estimated that Iran is “a little more than a year away from becoming a nuclear weapon state — an unprecedented and absolutely unacceptable threat.” He further called the Iranian government “one of the worst human rights abusers in the world.”
But even as Congress pushes for tougher sanctions, Iran is actively campaigning in the United Nations for the position of rapporteur, a key position dealing with disarmament and international security. Iran is competing with Kuwait for the position.
B’nai B’rith International expressed “outrage” and said that Iran’s “brazen and cynical attempt to win a leadership role on this committee would turn it [the committee] into a farce.”
Calling Iran “the world’s most active state-sponsor of international terror, supplying arms to a number of terrorist organizations, including Hezbollah,” B’nai B’rith issued a press release urging U.N. member states to pressure Iran into withdrawing its candidacy.