House readies Iran sanctions on gas imports

The House is expected to pass tough new sanctions on Iran easily this week, but the Senate may not find the time to approve its version of the legislation before year’s end.

Lawmakers could vote as early as Tuesday on new restrictions imposed on companies that provide gasoline to Iran, according to a House Democratic leadership aide. The sanctions are aimed at the Middle Eastern country for refusing to cooperate with the international community on its nuclear program. But despite strong support in the Senate, looming issues like healthcare reform and a defense appropriations bill leave little time for much else to be considered before the year is out.

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) “supports this legislation and will work hard to make sure that we will move forward with this bill. With so many important issues for the Senate to consider in the remaining days, we don’t know yet when this might come to the floor,” said Regan Lachapelle, a spokesman for Reid.

The House bill, authored by Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has 343 co-sponsors. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) will bring up the legislation under suspension of the rules, which does not allow amendments and requires two-thirds of members present to vote for the bill in order for it to pass.

The Senate bill, a combination of several measures including gasoline import restrictions and a strengthening of divestment powers for local and state authorities, also has broad support. The legislation was “hotlined” last Tuesday, which calls for a quick voice-vote and no roll-call count, but it stumbled as the Obama administration called for more time to iron out the details of the bill.

In a Dec. 11 letter first reported by the blog The Cable, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg wrote to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, about the administration’s concerns regarding the bill.

“At this juncture, I am concerned that this legislation, in its current form, might weaken rather than strengthen international unity and support for our efforts,” Steinberg wrote. In the letter, the State official says that he worried about the bill’s inflexibility as well as its “blacklisting” of companies, which might have “unintended foreign policy consequences.”

Further, Steinberg wrote to Kerry that he hopes the bill can be delayed until the new year in order not to interfere with the administration’s year-end diplomatic deadline for Iran to back down from its nuclear program.

The Obama administration has been cautious in pushing for new sanctions on Iran in order not to disrupt its strategy of building consensus among U.S. allies against the regime. Both the House and the Senate bills would give the White House waiver authority to exempt certain countries and firms from the sanctions if it serves U.S. national-security interests.

Pressure has been building on Washington to act against Iran as a number of pro-Israel groups have lobbied heavily for new sanctions. The Israel Project sent out an e-mail alert this week calling for phone calls and letters to stream into Capitol Hill before the House vote. In addition, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is firmly behind both bills.

“Since Iran imports up to 40 percent of its refined petroleum, curtailing its ability to purchase gas and diesel fuel could have a severe impact on the Iranian economy, forcing the regime to confront a real choice: continue its illicit nuclear program and risk economic ruin or suspend their nuclear program and open the door to relief from sanctions,” said Josh Block, a spokesman for AIPAC.

Even J Street, seen as the liberal counterpart to AIPAC, last week came out in favor of sanctions on Iran’s gasoline imports, despite its earlier opposition to the measure.

“Passage of this bill by Congress will highlight for the Iranian government the choice they must make between one path that leads to further isolation and another that leads to full integration in the international community and the ability to develop their economy to its full potential,” Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s executive director, said.

Some are still holding out against the sanctions package, though, believing it will empower the regime while hurting ordinary Iranians who have continued to protest against the government since the June election results, widely considered fraudulent.

“When we target the entire country, the entire economy, we also minimize the ability of the people to protect themselves,” said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).

NIAC, in turn, is getting behind legislation that was introduced Monday by Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), also a skeptic of new sanctions on Iran. Moran’s bill would update current U.S. sanctions, explicitly exempting American websites such as Facebook and Twitter — still used as organizing hubs by the Iranian protesters.

In a statement, Moran said his bill “will help the Iranian people gain access to the most powerful tool for advancing democracy there is: information.”

Moran’s bill could offer an avenue for lawmakers worried about the consequences of sanctioning gasoline for ordinary Iranians but who still want to get tough against the regime before U.S. voters. Parsi said the legislation was a smarter way of targeting the regime.

“We should do everything we can to help open up the communications lines to the Iranian people,” Parsi said.