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Iran sanctions conference highlights growing impatience on Capitol Hill

Some lawmakers are standing firm against the State Department’s request for broad waiver authority to exempt "cooperating countries" from the new Iran sanctions currently moving through Congress. The House and Senate held their first public conference in a very long time Wednesday to start merging together different versions of the Iran sanctions legislation, one led ...

Some lawmakers are standing firm against the State Department's request for broad waiver authority to exempt "cooperating countries" from the new Iran sanctions currently moving through Congress.

The House and Senate held their first public conference in a very long time Wednesday to start merging together different versions of the Iran sanctions legislation, one led by Senate Banking Committee chairman Chris Dodd, D-CT, and the other spearheaded by House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Howard Berman, D-CA.

This was only the first of what could be many meetings of the conference, which has a stated but non-binding goal of finishing its work by May 28. That just happens to be the final day of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference at the United Nations in New York.

Some lawmakers are standing firm against the State Department’s request for broad waiver authority to exempt "cooperating countries" from the new Iran sanctions currently moving through Congress.

The House and Senate held their first public conference in a very long time Wednesday to start merging together different versions of the Iran sanctions legislation, one led by Senate Banking Committee chairman Chris Dodd, D-CT, and the other spearheaded by House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Howard Berman, D-CA.

This was only the first of what could be many meetings of the conference, which has a stated but non-binding goal of finishing its work by May 28. That just happens to be the final day of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference at the United Nations in New York.

Most members just chose to make speeches warning of the dire threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program or criticizing the U.N. Security Council for failing to move fast enough on its own parallel effort to impose new sanctions on the regime of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is apparently being granted a visa to come to New York for the NPT meeting.

But some lawmakers aimed their fire at the administration, specifically the State Department, for not enforcing the many Iran sanctions previously enacted. They also promised to fight against the main change that State wants the conference to make to the legislation, to have the bill waive corporate sanctions for countries that are deemed to be "cooperating" with the new sanctions regime.

According to Deputy Secretary James Steinberg (pdf), the waiver is needed to avoid upsetting countries the U.S. needs to bring along on its push for multilateral action. Critics fear it will be used to exempt some of Iran’s biggest trading partners, Russia and China, in exchange for their support for a new U.N. resolution.

"The Department of State, under successive administrations, has failed to implement the sanctions laws already on the books, law aimed at compelling the regime to change course," said Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-FL, the ranking Republican on Berman’s committee.

She said that the 1996 law that imposed previous sanctions "included a national-interest waiver to address the very same arguments we are now hearing from the State Department and White House." But then, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright used the language to implement a sweeping waiver, "turning the act from a powerful tool into a paper tiger."

Congressman Brad Sherman, D-CA, chairman of Berman’s subcommittee on terrorism, non-proliferation, and trade, went even further.

"If the bill that we pass is going to be anything more than a mockery, we are going not only to have to require reports," he said, "but we’re going to need congressional oversight and investigations and limits on appropriations."

Regarding State’s request for more waiver authority, he said the department was asking Congress to "reward the fact that they have illegally ignored the law by writing provisions that allow them to do it legally."

"The idea of country by country waivers is absurd," Sherman said. "They will waive virtually every country unless they decide to simply ignore the law."

The message from everyone else at the table was largely the same. Congress isn’t waiting for the administration to come up with a new resolution at the U.N. Security Council.

"Iran and its spinning centrifuges do not wait. … We can no longer wait for a Security Council resolution that has been going on for months," said Berman.

"We will try to take concerns into account when we can, but time is running short," said Dodd.

"I am told that the U.N. Security Council negotiations are making progress, but everybody understands there’s not going to be a breakthrough overnight," said Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, D-MA.

"Hitler moved quickly, and they waited, and waited, and waited," said David Scott, D-GA.

Rep. Ed Royce, R-CA, offered up the most sobering comment of the day on the congressional drive to halt Iran’s nuclear advancement.

"Even crushing sanctions might not do the job," said Royce, "but we ought to try."

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said that Ahmadinejad will probably be granted a visa to come to New York next week for the nonproliferation conference, where he’ll be sure to make a splash.

"Well, we have certain responsibilities as the host of the U.N. … any foreign official who is coming to the U.N. for official business is normally granted a visa," he said.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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