By Kevin Bogardus and Mike Soraghan - 09/30/09 10:15 AM EDT
Lawmakers are readying tough new sanctions against Iran in the wake of its recent disclosure of a second secret nuclear facility.
A parade of bills in both chambers has drawn wide bipartisan support that suggests passage would be a cinch.
That didn’t deter Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who on Tuesday said he was preparing legislation that would impose tough new sanctions.
“We must confront Iran’s government with its long record of duplicity and deception on its nuclear facilities,” Dodd said.
The senior lawmaker said he planned to combine several bills — including measures that would sanction companies that supply Iran with gasoline imports, expand restrictions to oil and gas pipelines and tankers and enable Americans to divest from energy firms doing business in Iran — into one package. Dodd plans to hold a Banking Committee hearing on Iran on Oct. 6 and have legislation ready the week after.
Dodd said he supports President Barack Obama’s efforts, alongside America’s allies, to diplomatically engage the leaders of Iran. But it is also vital that Congress provides all the necessary tools to the president and send a “very, very clear signal” to the Iranians that their behavior regarding their nuclear facilities can no longer be tolerated, he said.
“Congress will be moving forward on the same timetable that the president and our allies have set for this fall, to underscore to Iran’s leaders the huge price they will pay — economically, politically, diplomatically and otherwise — if they do not change course,” Dodd said.
Such legislation should easily pass in the Senate. One bill, sponsored by Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), that would sanction companies behind gasoline imports to Iran and which Dodd plans to fold into his package for new sanctions against Iran, has 76 co-sponsors.
Like Dodd, House Democratic leaders indicated Tuesday that they were working closely with the administration and could bring a sanctions bill to the floor next month.
“Congress is keeping all options open as it monitors the situation closely and works with the administration to determine the best way forward,” said Nadeam Elshami, spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.) recently wrote that he plans to have a committee vote on his sanctions bill sometime in October. A spokeswoman for Berman said he wants to see what progress is made in the talks that begin Thursday between the United States, its allies and Iran. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has said he’ll bring the measure to the floor after the committee acts.
The bill, which has more than 300 co-sponsors, would impose sanctions to cut off Iran’s foreign gasoline supplies and isolate the country financially. Berman’s bill could be paired with one offered by House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) that authorizes local and state governments to divest from companies working in Iran’s energy sector, according to a Frank aide.
Republicans strongly support Berman’s bill. But Republicans have been frustrated that Berman hasn’t moved faster.
Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) filed a discharge petition to pull it out of committee and move it to the House floor. That petition has 74 co-signers but no Democrats at press time. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) wants the bill passed before the Nov. 4 anniversary of the 1979 taking of the U.S. embassy in Tehran.
Rhetoric from lawmakers began to heat up after Obama disclosed on Sept. 25 in a news conference at the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh that Iran had been hiding a secret nuclear facility.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Monday the administration should be pushing for regime change.
“And I don’t mean through military action, [but] by helping, supporting, assisting in a variety of ways, including Internet access and other encouragement of elements within Iran, to overthrow the regime,” McCain said on Fox News.
If Congress were to pass new sanctions on Iran, it would be Capitol Hill’s first major action taken against the Middle Eastern nation since the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act passed in 1996. That law, which sanctioned foreign investment in Iran’s energy sector, has been renewed twice.
Critics of imposing more sanctions argue that the law accomplished little, considering Iran has moved steadily along with its nuclear program since then. In addition, proposals now being considered by Congress could end up hurting the business interests of U.S. allies who sit on the United Nations Security Council.
“If we pass these sanctions that target our friends on the security council, it is likely that the unity that we currently have in the international community against Iran will be severely shaken,” said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council.
In addition, Iran spends 10 to 20 percent of its gross domestic product on subsidizing gasoline imports. If those imports are sanctioned, regime leaders can then blame the U.S. for the country’s fuel shortage — hurting American standing with Iranians that tried to unseat the regime this summer during the country’s contested elections — and spend those funds elsewhere.
“If you then dry up their ability to spend money on gasoline, what would they then spend that money on? The nuclear program?” Parsi said.
But others in Washington contend that sanctions could pressure Iran into giving up its nuclear program. Coupled with more law enforcement as well as intense diplomatic efforts, the U.S. could force Iran to back down.
“Sometimes being the 500-pound economic gorilla in the room can be helpful. You don’t want to overplay your hand, but people want to do business in the United States,” said Matthew Levitt, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.