Obama and Kerry slowing sanctions legislation push
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Obama and Kerry slowing sanctions legislation push

President Obama meeting in the Oval Office on Oct. 21, 2009 with U.S. Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who is heeding an appeal from the administration to go slow on Iran sanctions legislation. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Obama meeting in the Oval Office on Oct. 21, 2009 with U.S. Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who is heeding an appeal from the administration to go slow on Iran sanctions legislation. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Unilateral U.S. sanctions against Iran are on track, Senate officials say, but taking the slow train.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, needs time to consider the bill, his spokesman, Frederick Jones, told JTA. Jones strongly refuted rumors that Kerry would keep the legislation from reaching the floor, although that is in his power as a committee chairman.

"We’re working with the administration to reach a solution that achieves the minimum all parties" want, Jones said. "There’s no hold, it’s not dead, it’s just they’re anticipating the legislative process."

That means it’s extremely unlikely the Senate will rush the legislation before year’s end, as had been reported earlier, especially considering other pressing matters.

The go-slow approach takes some of the wind out of the version of the bill, the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, that passed Tuesday in the U.S. House of Representatives version. Both versions target Iran’s import of refined petroleum; the deleterious state of Iran’s refining capabilities means it imports up to 40 percent of its refined oil, despite being a major oil producer.

It has become increasingly clear in recent days that the Obama administration wants to slow down the prospect of unilateral sanctions while it attempts to mass international support for multilateral measures aimed at forcing Iran to make its nuclear workings transparent.

The most pronounced language has appeared in a letter from James Steinberg, the deputy secretary of state, to Kerry’s committee. The letter, Jones said, helped prompt Kerry’s concerns about the legislation.

"We are entering a critical period of intense diplomacy to impose significant international pressure on Iran," Steinberg said in the letter, which was first leaked to Foreign Policy magazine. "This requires that we keep the focus on Iran. 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. In addition to the timing, we have serious substantive concerns, including the lack of flexibility, inefficient monetary thresholds and penalty levels, and blacklisting that could cause unintended foreign policy consequences."

The pushback comes as many pro-Israel groups have lined up behind the proposed sanctions. One official of a group pushing hard for the legislation cautioned not to lose the forest for the trees — the bottom line of the White House backing sanctions, now or in the near future, was good news. That Obama wanted tweaks to the legislation was to be expected, the official said.

Still, what exists now is a situation in which many major Jewish groups — including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Reform movement — are pushing hard for bills that Obama and Kerry would prefer to work slowly and carefully. Only Americans for Peace Now is publicly aligned with the administration in counseling changes to the proposed sanctions.

In his letter, Steinberg did not elaborate about his concerns, and Jones said Kerry has yet to articulate his concerns. But an analysis of the Senate bill points to specific areas where the broad criticisms Steinberg lays out in his letter would apply.

"Inefficient monetary thresholds," for instance, likely refers to a passage of the Senate bill incorporating language from an earlier version of the measure initiated by Sens. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). The passage effectively would reduce the "trigger" to impose sanctions from $20 million in business per year with the energy sector to $1 million a year — small change in the oil business and hard to track, hence Steinberg’s allusion to its "inefficiency."

The "blacklisting" apparently refers to the bill’s requirement that the administration report those entities — individuals, companies or countries — meeting the $20 million threshold every six months. (The threshold would remain at $20 million for blacklisting.)

Such reporting would have an inhibitive effect on the entities, even were President Obama to waive its provisions. President Clinton, for instance, consistently waived the last major Iran sanctions legislation passed in the mid-1990s, but the fact that the legislation was available to him inhibited companies from dealing with Iran.

Top administration officials have made clear in recent days that they are apprehensive of scaring away potential partners in multilateral sanctions with the threat of punitive sanctions.

"We want to create coalitions," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a Dec. 10 interview with Al Jazeera when she was asked if the United States was nearing the point when it would impose sanctions unilaterally to persuade Iran to make its nuclear program more transparent. "We want to find common ground with people. There are many things we could go off and do unilaterally, as the prior administration certainly demonstrated. That’s not our chosen path. We would prefer to take some more time, to be more patient, to bring people together to make the case."

Clinton rebuffed claims that the United States and Europe had failed to persuade other major powers to make a common cause on the Iran issue, referring to the recent resolution by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, condemning Iran for failing to cooperate with its inspectors.

"The vote that was accumulated condemning Iran, calling for Iran to act, was shocking to some people because it was so unified," she said. "It wasn’t just the United States. It was Russia, it was China and many other countries. That’s because we have spent time listening and working hard to create this common ground and these common interests, and we’ve done it out of a sense of mutual respect."

Clinton’s spokesman, Ian Kelly, directly addressed the proposed bills.

"We want to make sure that whatever kind of package is being considered, that it’s the right kind of package," Kelly said in a briefing last Friday. "Any kind of pressure is going to be more effective if it’s implemented broadly and not simply bilaterally."

Representatives of the major powers — the United States, Russia, Britain, France, Germany and China — will meet before year’s end to consider the next steps with Iran in the wake of its rejection of an offer to enrich its uranium to medical research levels in exchange for greater nuclear transparency.

On Dec. 11, the White House endorsed a statement issued by the Council of European Union, the EU’s foreign policy arm, that warned of a "clear response" to Iranian recalcitrance, an allusion to enhanced sanctions.

"Iran’s persistent failure to meet its international obligations and Iran’s apparent lack of interest in pursuing negotiations require a clear response, including through appropriate measures," the EU statement said.

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