The Cable

Congress pushes forward with the “pressure track” on Iran

As the administration still holds out hope for its engagement strategy with Iran, Congress is working furiously to set up a whole host of sanctions bills that could be used by the administration if and when Obama’s outstretched hand fails to convince Tehran to unclench its fist. Several different Iran sanctions bill are at various ...

As the administration still holds out hope for its engagement strategy with Iran, Congress is working furiously to set up a whole host of sanctions bills that could be used by the administration if and when Obama’s outstretched hand fails to convince Tehran to unclench its fist.

Several different Iran sanctions bill are at various stages of the legislative process, but the Senate Banking Committee decided today to approve a bill that collects all of them into one package.

The package, led by Chris Dodd, D-CT, and Richard Shelby, R-AL, seeks to prevent Iran from importing refined petroleum products, penalizes U.S. firms for helping Iran do so, bans contracts for companies to give Iran technology that could be used to censor free speech, allows states to divest from Iran, and much more.

"The President of the United States has rightly adopted a two-track policy, in my view, of engagement backed by the prospect of further sanctions and I support his approach," said Dodd, "Our legislation strengthens what has come to be known as the ‘pressure track.’"

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said that the administration prefers a multilateral approach to any sanctions on Iran and is focused on the diplomacy push. ""But all along, there’s also the other track, the track of pressure, and we believe that that track has to be at least planned for while we pursue the engagement track," he said.

The Senate Committee’s action comes only one day after the House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously approved a bill focusing on the refined petroleum restrictions alone. That legislation had 333 Congressional co-sponsors. Senators Evan Bayh, D-IN, Jon Kyl, R-AZ, and Joseph Lieberman, I-CT, have a counterpart to the Berman bill with 76 Senate co-sponsors.

House committee chairman Howard Berman, D-CA, said upon acting on his bill that the current draft agreement between Iran and the IAEA to transfer its low enriched uranium to a third country would only delay the Iranian nuclear program nine to twelve months and does nothing to permanently halt Iran’s uranium enrichment program.

"The Iranian government should know that the U.S. Congress remains intently focused on this issue, and that there will be severe consequences down the road should it refuse to suspend its nuclear program," said Berman.

Earlier this month, the House overwhelmingly passed a bill allowing U.S. entities to divest from Iran, legislation put forth by Barney Frank, D-MA. Senators Sam Brownback, R-KS, and Robert Casey, D-PA, have a companion bill in the Senate.

President Obama was an original co-sponsor of a bill similar to the Brownback-Casey bill when he was in the Senate. During the presidential campaign last year he also endorsed refined petroleum sanctions legislation, saying "If we can prevent them from importing the gasoline that they need … that starts changing their cost-benefit analysis. That starts putting the squeeze on them."

The Weekly Standard has some great details on the some of the behind-the-scenes action on the Dodd-Shelby bill, focusing on an amendment almost offered by Bob Corker, R-TN, to weaken the language in the bill.

This… amendment would have changed the ‘shalls’ in the bill to ‘mays’ — i.e., the bill would no longer command President Obama to impose petroleum sanctions in 120 days barring some major diplomatic breakthrough (the president shall…), but would instead allow the president to impose those sanctions (the president may…).

Corker offered several rationales for this attempt to change the language. First off, he said, "when we pass this the president has to do it in 120 days…I question the timing." In other words, Corker worries that the language would limit the president’s flexibility.

Corker also said that he "made the point that by using the word ‘shall,’ they were sending a message of no confidence in the president." Corker said that observation was met by silence from the Democrats in the room, but sources familiar with the history of this legislation note the language was crafted before Obama’s election, and add that the use of the word ‘shall’ is standard legislative language.

The real problem with Corker’s amendment, and the reason that there was so little support for it among members of the committee, was that Dodd’s bill actually gives the president no new authority to impose sanctions on Iran — it is merely a statement of broad bipartisan support and resolve for the president should he choose to exercise his existing authority under the International Emergency Powers Act.

 Twitter: @joshrogin

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