On Wednesday afternoon, members of the House and Senate gathered for a conference committee meeting to discuss the bills passed by each house to impose sanctions on Iran. As I sat down at my desk to write this, I pulled out my Roget’s Thesaurus to see how many synonyms for “crippling,” ‘crushing,” “overwhelming,” “suffocating,” and so on there are. There are a lot. And many of them, including those just mentioned, were used by members of Congress competing to see strongly each one could condemn Iran.
It wasn’t pretty. Apoplexy was the order of the day.
Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida got the ball rolling, by demanding “crippling, mandatory sanctions” on Iran. Which caused everyone who followed to try to outbid her.
The United States can’t be satisfied with “semi-sanctions,” said Senator Joe Lieberman, but must instead “marshal the economic, political, and if necessary [its] military power” against the “fanatical regime.” Representative Gary Ackerman declared that crippling sanctions weren’t strong enough, insisting that the world must impose “suffocating” sanctions on Iran – and even then, he said, “success in this effort is unlikely” and that Iran would “have a nuclear weapon in less than two years.” Representative Dan Burton of Indiana upped the ante, nearly foaming at the mouth while saying that the military people he talks to say the Iran could have The Bomb within one year, adding ominously: “We have to do whatever is necessary to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons.” Representative Brad Sherman of California denounced those who want to impose mere targeted sanctions on Iranian wrongdoers, declaring: “Smart sanctions are dumb.” We need, he said, “absolutely crippling sanctions.” And Representative Ed Royce thundered that the United States and its allies must impose “crushing” sanctions, then added: “Even crushing sanctions might not do the job.”
Noting that most of the speakers were either rabid, right-wing Republicans or militantly pro-AIPAC Democrats, I went over to Representative Barney Frank as the left the room. Is there any way to stop this runaway train? I asked. “No,” he said. And he’s glad. Frank argues that the bill, which as written will compel the president to impose sanctions on friend and foe alike who sell gasoline and petroleum products to Iran, will strengthen the president’s hand. (The White House and the State Department, incidentally, oppose the bill, and they’re demanding that the conferees weaken it to give President Obama some flexibility in implementing its draconian provisions. So, it would seem, the president doesn’t want the help that Congressman Frank is happily offering.) I pointed out to Frank that the president doesn’t want the bill’s help, but Frank said, simply, “It helps him.”
Most of the conferees lambasted the White House – and previous administrations, too – for refusing to implement Iran-bashing legislation that they’d helpfully enacted in the past. That’s because diplomats and others with cooler heads, including key players in the administration of George W. Bush, too, realize that sanctioning allies and imposing harsh penalties on European, Russian, Chinese, and Indian companies doesn’t win friends and influence people. (The Clinton administration realized the same thing, and President Clinton refused to impose draconian measures in the 1990s that Congress wanted.) But in 2010, Congress is so mad at Iran, and so unhappy with resistance from the White House and the State Department, that this time they’re going to write a bill that forces President Obama’s hand. “We cannot produce a bill that is so full of holes, carve-outs, exemptions, and waivers that no one takes it seriously,” said Ros-Lehtinen today.