After finally “getting to 60” and securing a Christmas Eve vote for health-care reform legislation, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid should have been heading home to celebrate.
Instead, the Senate’s top Democrat took time to tee up a new foreign-policy fight with Iran.
Within hours of securing passage of his version of health-care reform, Reid was announcing that he wants he to bring legislation imposing sanction on Iran to a vote when senators return from their holiday break in January.
“This important piece of legislation… would impose new sanctions on Iran’s refined petroleum sector and tighten existing U.S. sanctions in an effort to create new pressure on the Iranian regime and help stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” Reid said of the bill, which the Nevada Democrat wants to put on the legislative fast-track now that Iranian officials have indicated that they are unwilling to meet an end-of-the-year deadline to address fears that the country might seek to produce nuclear warheads.
Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are busy sending signals that they are ready to ramp up the wrangling with Iran. But their ill-thought and ill-timed sanctions initiatives — which have raised concerns inside the Obama White House and across the international community — are unlikely to further the legitimate cause of disarmament and could end up strengthening the hand of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
No one wants to encourage Ahmadinejad, whose regime is the target of massive anti-government protests this weekend. But Ahmadinejad gets a boost when foreign leaders are seen as targeting not just his recklessness but Iran itself.
That’s why savvy members of the House courageously opposed a sanctions measure that would force President Obama to bar foreign companies that supply Iran with refined petroleum from doing business in the United States.
The House passed the sanctions measure 412-12 in mid-December.
But the 12 no votes came with far wiser statements of opposition to the foolish sanctions initiative than the all-too-predictable saber rattling from Reid and Pelosi.
Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, the Wisconsin Democrat who, despite close ties to Pelosi and other House leaders, has consistently argued against aggressive yet ineffectual responses to the complicated situation on the ground in Iran, explained that:
Today I voted against H.R. 2194, the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act of 2009. Iran has long been subject to U.S. economic sanctions and, more recently, to United Nations sanctions, over its uranium enrichment program and support for terror activities. H.R. 2194 significantly expands upon these existing laws by requiring President Obama to impose sanctions against companies that supply Iran with -– or support its domestic production of –- gasoline and other refined petroleum products.
I believe such a heavy-handed approach is misguided and will impair the United States’ ability to work with our allies in pursuit of a diplomatic solution in dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. I have serious concerns that cutting off the gasoline supply to Iran will not have any effect on changing the Iranian government’s behavior. Rather, it will hurt the Iranian people, and I fear it will engender a backlash by Iranians against the U.S. – not the Iranian regime.
I am pleased that President Obama is attempting to contain Iran’s strategic capabilities and regional influence through expanded diplomatic engagement as opposed to the previous Administration’s pursuit of a preemptive militaristic strategy. I fully support the Iranian citizens who oppose the governing regime and embrace the values of freedom, human rights, civil liberties, and rule of law. Indeed, a recent poll of Iranians found that sixty percent favor restoration of diplomatic relations between their country and the U.S. I cannot support legislation that rejects this Administration’s pursuit of diplomacy and may punish the very pro-democracy Iranians our country should be supporting.
Congressman Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, outlined his opposition with a detailed statement, in which he declared that, “I strongly oppose the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act of 2009. This legislation obstructs the Obama Administration’s ongoing negotiations with Iran, amounts to economic warfare against the Iranian people and brings us closer to an unnecessary and possibly military confrontation with Iran.”
Noting concerns expressed by the Obama administration with regard to congressional action on sanctions, Kucinich explained:
Though this bill claims to express support for international diplomatic efforts to halt Iran’s uranium enrichment program, it actually undermines those efforts. Passing legislation that effectively forces the President’s hand in one direction diminishes the power of the President and his diplomatic team by significantly limiting the tools the Administration can utilize. Furthermore, it projects a negative image of the United States in the region at a time when we need broad international support to succeed in our negotiations.
In addition, this bill has been brought to the Floor on the suspension calendar, where there is no chance for amendment. Yet the bill has significant implications for our foreign policy. We must heed the advice of Deputy Secretary of State Steinberg when he asked Senator (John) Kerry last week to delay consideration of this bill so as to not undermine the Administration’s diplomatic efforts…
We are eager to support the President in his escalation of war in Afghanistan. Yet we are just as eager to fast-track consideration of legislation that atrophies the progress of difficult negotiations in which the Administration has invested significant time.
The legislation correctly states that The United Nations Security Council has adopted a range of resolutions that open the door for sanctions, should the diplomatic track fail. However, this legislation undermines the rare unity the UN Security Council demonstrated by passage of several resolutions on Iran. Perhaps most significantly, the implications of this bill will isolate the United States, not Iran, from the international community.
The Ohio congressman also argued that, “This legislation inflicts widespread economic hardship on the people of Iran that we claim to support. Millions of Iranians took to the streets in June to protest the election in what became the biggest demonstrations to challenge the government since the 1979 revolution. Well-known democracy and human rights activists in Iran, such as Shirin Ebadi, who have been challenging the government, oppose these sanctions. Sanctions impede the ability of the Iranian people to challenge their government and sanctions significantly damage their human rights.”
Sanctions targeting imports of petroleum products, including natural gas, gasoline and kerosene will raise the prices of these products that Iranians use every day in their homes and for transportation. Physicians for Social Responsibility stated that this bill will ‘not hurt the rich and powerful in Iran, but the people of Iran.’ Forcing the people of Iran to pay more for gasoline will not cause a confrontation between the government and the population, but will cause increased Anti-American sentiment. Waging economic warfare on the people of Iran surely is not reflective of our feeling of friendship stated in the legislation. It is the middle and lower-class Iranians that will most likely be affected by rising gasoline prices.
This legislation also serves to benefit the government of Iran by diverting attention from the domestic problems they are being called upon to address, such as abuses of human rights, civil rights, civil liberties and freedom of speech.
In addition to Baldwin and Kucinich, the other ten “no” votes on the sanctions bill came from seven Democrats (Oregon’s Earl Blumenauer, Michigan’s John Conyers, New York’s Maurice Hinchey, Massachusetts’ Stephen Lynch, Washington’s Jim McDermott, Wisconsin’s Gwen Moore and California’s Pete Stark) and three Republicans (Tennessee’s John Duncan, Arizona’s Jeff Flake and Texan Ron Paul).
Conscientious members of the Senate — which is, after all, supposed to take a deliberative approach, especially on tense foreign-policy issues — should follow the well-reasoned and responsible lead of the House dissenters and seek a more appropriate approach than the one proposed by Reid.
On this issue, if the majority leader is allowed to have his way, much more harm than good will be done to the causes of disarmament and democracy in Iran.