Momentum builds for Iran-sanctions bill

While the war between Israel and Hezbollah continues to dominate international headlines, new momentum is developing for a long-stalled Iran-sanctions bill that the Senate will consider after the August recess.

The Senate Banking Committee will consider provisions of the Iran Freedom and Support Act, which Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) introduced last year. The recent conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, as well as the recent breakdown in negotiations aimed at curtailing Iran’s alleged attempts at a nuclear-weapons program, could help persuade enough Senators to vote in favor of the sanctions language.

The provisions call for sanctioning companies that invest in Iran’s petroleum sector, an attempt to cut off investment that could be used to help create or acquire a nuclear weapon. The measure would amend existing provisions of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) by decreasing the discretion of the President to employ such measures.

Andrew Gray, a spokesman for the Banking Committee, said the committee would consider the sanctions language when it takes up ILSA renewal. He added that Santorum, a member of the committee, “does have some ideas in his legislation” and that “his thoughts will be part of the discussion.”

Gray also noted that Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the committee chairman, had decided to hold off on scheduling a markup of a bill that would simply re-authorize the ILSA statute for another five years, legislation that Santorum and Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) introduced. The move would make it possible to add the sanctions language to the legislation before the committee vote.

Robert Traynham, communications director for Santorum, said in March that his boss is interested in attaching his bill to ILSA reauthorization legislation.

The House and Senate approved a bill last week that would extend ILSA, which was set to expire on August 5th, until September 29th. Congress will likely have to decide within this limited time frame whether to solely reauthorize ILSA for another period of years or strengthen the sanctions provisions by amending the statute.

The Santorum bill has moved little since its introduction in February 2005. The legislation has been bottled up in the Foreign Relations Committee, largely because its chairman, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), has objected publicly to the use of sanctions.

Santorum offered his legislation as an amendment to the defense authorization bill in June, which resulted in a floor debate between Santorum and Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner (R-Va.), who argued that the amendment would undermine negotiations with Iran. The amendment was ultimately rejected, missing passage by just four votes, with 24 out of the bill’s 61 co-sponsors voting against it, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

However, Sens. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), all of them co-sponsors of the bill who also voted against it in June plan on supporting the bill in the future, according to their spokespeople. Melissa Schwartz, Mikulski’s spokeswoman, said that “the bill is now more important than ever” in light of the recent conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.

The House companion bill, introduced by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), also has stalled since it was referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April. The legislation passed in the House by a vote of 397 to 21.

Santorum referenced his bill during a speech he delivered at the National Press Club on July 20th, stating that “when we pass the Iran Freedom and Support Act, its major diplomatic effect will be to strengthen our negotiating position.”

“I’m sure the President will sign it when it passes,” he added. Santorum’s office did not respond to calls for comment.

The Bush Administration, however, has consistently opposed the bill, stating that it would hamper relations with countries whose companies are investing in Iranian petroleum such as France, China and Russia.

James Phillips, a research fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs with the Heritage Foundation, predicted that the recent fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, “which was partly instigated by Iran, will strengthen support for escalating sanctions against Iran” and that “the Senate should act as soon as possible to send a signal to Iran that its provocative actions have concrete negative consequences.”

Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow for foreign relations studies with the Brookings Institution, argued that “giving away the President’s ability to negotiate prior to the completion of negotiations [with Iran] makes no sense.”

President Clinton signed the ILSA statute into law in 1996. It was intended to slow down Iran’s ability to acquire weapons of mass destruction by significantly cutting off investment in their petroleum reserves. According to the Congressional Research Service, however, no company or country has been sanctioned under the law within the past 10 years in spite of several instances of petroleum investment.

Recent events surrounding both the Israel-Hezbollah conflict and the negotiations with Iran would play a significant role if enough Senators ultimately decide to support the sanctions language. Both Republicans and Democrats have accused Iran of motivating Hezbollah to kidnap two Israeli soldiers on July 12th — an act that lead to the recent strife — and to launch missiles into Haifa, the Israeli seaport.

Iran has historically provided military and financial support to Hezbollah, and many of the missiles fired have reportedly been Iranian-manufactured, including the missiles that were likely used during the attacks on Haifa.

Additionally, Iran recently declared that it would not halt its uranium enrichment program after the U.N. passed a Security Council resolution demanding that Iran suspend its program by August 31 or face possible sanctions. In May, a U.S.-European delegation offered Iran an incentives package, which included providing civilian nuclear technology to Iran. The U.S.-European delegation proceeded with the resolution after Iran initially said it would not respond until August 22nd.