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.
There's a chance, a small one, that Senator John Kerry, along with Senator Chris Dodd (the Senate sponsor of the bill) will accede to administration wishes and water down the bill so that it doesn't tie the president's hands. To the consternation of the mad dog-like members of the conference committee, Senator Dodd said, "We will accommodate the administration's concerns," though he didn't specify exactly how. And Kerry, sounding glum and resigned - and completely avoiding words such as crushing, crippling, and suffocating! - said simply that the threat of congressional action has "helped to focus the world's attention" on the Iran problem, but he added: "This conference report is gonna pass." He pointed out the international diplomacy by the Obama administration, and the talks at the UN Security Council about sanctions, are proceeding, and that it all may take time.
And Representative Howard Berman, the bill's sponsor in the House, suggested that there is a "certain logic" to the administration's request that the legislation carve out waivers or exemptions for "cooperating countries" - which, as some members pointed out, could mean anyone and everyone.
But when it comes to weakening the bill, the rest of the members weren't having any of it.
Representative Mike Pence of Indiana said: "This administration has spent more time on the threat of global warming than on the threat of a nuclear Iran." Ignoring the fact that Iran has no nuclear weapon, that U.S. intelligence agencies say that it will be three to five years before they can develop a nuclear capability even if they want to, and that even with a bomb Iran isn't likely to commit suicide by using it, Pence raised the specter of another Holocaust, warning about a "second, historic tragedy for our most cherished ally" in the Middle East.
The House passed its version of the sanctions bill last December. Then, in January, the Senate followed suit. In the next several weeks, it seems, the House and Senate will reconcile the slight differences between the two bills and send them to the White House with a huge, veto-proof majority behind them. The bill requires the administration to examine any and all contracts between Iran and oil and gasoline suppliers. Any greater than a tiny threshold - just $200,000 to $500,000 - trigger a U.S. crackdown, and the president is then required to place the offending company on a "blacklist." He must then take strong action against the company, up to and including seizing its assets in the United States.
Last year, Obama launched his vaunted diplomatic opening to Iran, which seemed to make progress. Not only did the opening to Iran encourage the dissident and reformist opposition last spring, but it led top officials of Iran to sit down with American diplomats over the summer and fall and to sign an accord on October 1 in Geneva that seemed to be a breakthrough: Iran agreed to send nearly all of its enriched uranium to Russia and France for reprocessing into fuel rods for a medical reactor. But that accord fell apart, victim in part to internal firefights within Iran's fractured political system. What comes next, for Obama, isn't clear. He's pushing hard on what he, Robert Gates, and Hillary Clinton call "the pressure track" now, and he wants the UN to impose a fourth round of sanctions, with the support of Russia and China. Beyond that, it seems that the United States is planning to impose tougher unilateral sanctions on Iran, too, beginning this summer, that would include severe financial sanctions and cut-offs of investment and technology to Iran by U.S. allies in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere.
And then what? The administration has pretty much ruled out military action, despite what Lieberman and Dick Cheney want. They insist that they want to keep the diplomatic track open. But where do sanctions lead? As the hawks point out, correctly, even crushing, crippling, and suffocating sanctions aren't likely to persuade Iran to cave in. It seems like a formula for failure and stalemate.