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As zero hour nears, differences emerge on sanctions

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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, shown meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem in October 2009, says the Obama administration wants to pressure the Iranian government without contributing to the suffering of ordinary Iranians. (State Department photo by Matty Stern U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv)

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, shown meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem in October 2009, says the Obama administration wants to pressure the Iranian government without contributing to the suffering of ordinary Iranians. (State Department photo by Matty Stern U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — As long as the Iran conversation was broad and dealt only with "sanctions," the Congress, the White House and the pro-Israel community seemed to be on the same page.

But now that Iran has rejected just about every bouquet sent its way and the talk has turned to the details, longstanding differences over how best to go forward are taking center stage.

With the backing of many Jewish groups, Congress appears to be pressing ahead with a package that targets Iran’s energy sector.

While the White House appears to support new congressional sanctions, it appears to favor more narrow measures targeting the Iranian leadership and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, considered especially vulnerable because of the recent anti-government turmoil.

In part the debate is over which approach would do more to help opposition forces in Iran. But also playing a role is the Obama administration’s continuing emphasis on securing international backing for tougher measures against Tehran, the idea being that sweeping U.S. sanctions aimed at the Iranian energy sector could turn off several key nations.

Additionally, the Obama administration has not counted out the prospect of engagement with Iran, although the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad government has put to rest any notion that it will entertain the West’s offer to enrich Iran’s uranium to medical research levels in exchange for transparency about the Islamic Republic’s suspected nuclear weapons program.

"Our goal is to pressure the Iranian government, particularly the Revolutionary Guard elements, without contributing to the suffering" of Iranians, "who deserve better than what they currently are receiving,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a news conference Monday.

Opponents of the congressional sanctions, which target just about any investment anywhere in the world in Iran’s energy sector, say they would be inhumane and rally support for the regime.

"Having opposed the adoption of crippling sanctions all along, Americans for Peace Now is glad to see further affirmation from the White House that it does not seek such crippling sanctions," said Ori Nir, a spokesman for APN, the only major Jewish group opposing the congressional package.

In defense of the proposed legislation, one insider from a centrist pro-Israel group recounted a much-repeated scenario: The cab driver who runs out of gas in the middle of a traffic clogged street, gets out of the car, and raises his fist and curses — not the West as he might have just a year or so ago, but Ahmadinejad and the rest of Iran’s leadership.

"In tyrannies, the fiction that keeps people under control is the trust they have in government to take care of them and the fear they have of confronting the government," the insider said. "In Iran, the trust is gone and the fear is still there, but going."

Concerns that the congressional package will lead to human misery are overstated, its backers say. The bills include provisions for presidential waivers and are meant first as leverage.

Similar sanctions packages passed by Congress in the 1990s also were never implemented by Presidents Clinton and Bush, yet they had an almost immediate effect because of the threat of being implemented. Major Western traders pulled out of Iran, which is partly why the country’s refinement capabilities are in disarray. Iran, a major oil exporter, still must import up to 40 percent of its refined petroleum.

The principals in shaping the previous sanctions — in Congress, the Clinton administration and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — now openly admit that they were playing a coordinated "good cop-bad cop" game: Republicans who backed the sanctions would quietly shape their criticisms of the Clinton administration in consultation with administration officials; Clinton officials then would cite that "pressure" in getting European nations to join in efforts to isolate Iran.

It’s not clear now whether a similar dynamic is at work between the White House and Congress. Some insiders say it is; others say the Obama administration is genuinely wary of punishing sanctions and is unhappy with the pressure from Congress and the pro-Israel community.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed its sanctions package in late December, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has pledged to attend to the Senate version as soon as the chamber reconvenes Jan. 19.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has said he is willing to consider the White House’s objections, particularly to a proposed blacklist of companies that deal with Iran and to sanctions that target third-party entities — companies and nations that deal with Iran.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is moving ahead with the following actions:

* Pressing other major powers to back a proposed U.N. Security Council resolution that would expand existing sanctions on travel and business dealings to 3,000 individuals associated with the Revolutionary Guards;

* Intensify enforcement of existing U.S. sanctions on doing business with Iran;

* Intensify efforts to uncover and fine companies that cover up their financial dealings with Iran.

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