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AIPAC, congressmen seek to add teeth to Iran sanctions

WASHINGTON – Rules without enforcement don’t mean much.

That’s the new tone the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and its supporters on Capitol Hill are taking when it comes to Iran sanctions.

Last week, congressional appropriators close to AIPAC moved to introduce enforcement language that would penalize federal agencies that contract with companies doing business with the Islamic Republic.

“If the existing lock on the door was not doing the job, this is a much more powerful lock we’re placing on the door of companies who would want to do business with Iran,” said U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.), who is pushing the language with fellow U.S. House of Representatives appropriators, Reps. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). All three are known for close ties to the Jewish state.

Setting the wheels in motion for the new legislation was the revelation in The New York Times on March 6 that sanctions busters had garnered $107 billion in U.S. government money for procurement business, grants, and loans.

In a rare move for a lobby best known for its behind-the-scenes profile, AIPAC sent letters to every member of Congress expressing its outrage over the sanctions violations.

“These ongoing financial dealings undermine longstanding American efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability,” the letter said. “While Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama may have discouraged some investment in Iran through their rhetoric, the United States has sent the American and international business community a contradictory message by failing to enforce the law.”

AIPAC’s letter has had an effect.

Rothman said he already was planning action as soon as he read the story, but the calls and e-mails he received made it a must-do. “My Blackberry was burning,” he said.

Rep. Israel raised the issue with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on March 25 in a hearing of the foreign operations subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee. Geithner was receptive.

“We would be open to any effective means for bringing greater pressure to bear on this government,” he said. “We share your commitment to this and we’ll work with you to explore any feasible means to bring greater pressure to bear on this government.”

Rep. Israel later said he was satisfied.

“The administration clearly got the message,” he said, noting that Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush, had not enforced the sanctions for both of his terms. “I don’t want to proclaim victory yet; we still have work to do.”

The legislation would attach “limiting” amendments to all 12 budget bills that Congress must pass, preventing funds from going to companies that engage in activity eligible for sanctions or own or control any party that engages in such activity. This latter practice was a common dodge by U.S.-owned companies to enable foreign-owned subsidiaries to deal with Iran.

The legislation came the same week that AIPAC drew nearly 8,000 attendees to its annual policy conference. AIPAC activists lobbied March 23 for final passage of bills to enhance sanctions in existence since the mid-1990s. Bills have passed in the House and Senate and are now undergoing “reconciliation.”

The existing sanctions banned most U.S. business dealings with Iran. Yet the Times found in its March 6 report that 49 U.S. companies were doing business with Iran, and those doing business with Iran’s energy sector had gotten $15 billion.

The existing sanctions restrict access to U.S. markets for foreign entities doing business with Iran’s energy sector. The enhanced sanctions would outright ban U.S. business with any entity doing business with Iran’s energy sector and would also target Iran’s financial sector. The sanctions also would reduce the $20 million ceiling for overseas companies doing such business to $1 million. The idea is to force overseas markets into a choice between trading with the United States or with Iran.

The Times revelations were a bitter pill for AIPAC’s activists. The flagrant violation of the 1996 bill that AIPAC had been instrumental in supporting was a damper for AIPAC activists famous for their enthusiasm.

“It’s frustrating, a dead end,” said Debbie Farnoush, 26, from Los Angeles and a founder of the Iranian-American group 30 Years After. “I feel like we’re not going anywhere.” Still, she said, she wasn’t going to give up. The United States needs to be “more aggressive,” she said.

Bruce Wiener, another activist, was optimistic about the prospect of tougher enforcement. “Most members of Congress are sympathetic,” he said. “It’s not a matter of convincing; it’s a matter of implementing.”

Keith Weissman, who headed AIPAC’s Iran desk until 2005, said that Clinton administration officials made it clear to him from the beginning that the bill was never going to be enforced because it crimped U.S. trade with foreign businesses. Clinton’s 1995 executive order banning business with Iran’s energy sector had been enforced for a short period and had spooked the oil industry enough that the 1996 bill was used as leverage — but never in deed.

Part of the problem, Weissman said, was that after years of threatening and not implementing, the U.S. government was perceived as crying wolf by companies that wanted to deal with Iran.

“Once it was clear they weren’t going to enforce it, it wasn’t going to work any more,” Weissman said.

Weissman and his boss, Steve Rosen, were fired by AIPAC in 2005 under pressure from prosecutors seeking an indictment against the men for relaying national security information to journalists, colleagues, and Israeli diplomats. The prosecution dropped the case a year ago after the presiding judge ruled that much of the government’s case violated constitutional principles, including free speech rights.

Weissman, who no longer believes sanctions to be effective, said the amendments now under consideration would create a cumbersome bureaucracy, with multiple U.S. agencies vetting hundreds of businesses.

“What, are you going to vet the company that provides food to soldiers, that helps export oil from Iraq, that caters parties at the Baghdad embassy?” he asked.

Rep. Israel dismisses the idea that the amendments are unworkable.

“There can be no argument that once a law is passed and signed by the president that it’s too complicated to enforce,” he said. “Whether it’s a contract, a grant, or a loan, whether it’s a penny, a dime, or a dollar, we will not allow them to spend the money.”

JTA

Eric Fingerhut and Melissa Apter contributed to this story.

 
 

It’s how you say it that matters

 

Post-Mubarak, Obama embraces Middle East reform

Ron KampeasWorld
Published: 18 February 2011

WASHINGTON – A combination of calculation, luck, and principles is steering the Obama administration to emphasize democracy and human rights in the Middle East in the post-Mubarak era.

On Tuesday, President Obama laid out a revamped strategy that takes into account U.S. strategic interests in the region while also emphasizing the need to accommodate uprisings that have swept away governments in Egypt and Tunisia, as well as protests nipping at U.S. allies in Barhain, Jordan, and Yemen.

News Analysis

“I think my administration’s approach is the approach that jibes with how most Americans think about this region, which is that each country is different, each country has its own traditions,” Obama said at a White House news conference that was supposed to have been devoted to his proposed budget.

“America can’t dictate how they run their societies, but there are certain universal principles that we adhere to,” he said. “One of them is we don’t believe in violence as a way of — and coercion — as a way of maintaining control. And so we think it’s very important that in all the protests that we’re seeing in — throughout the region — that governments respond to peaceful protesters peacefully.”

image
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in a news briefing Monday following her meeting with House Speaker John Boehner on Capitol Hill at which she cited change in Egypt as a reason for not slashing foreign spending. State Department

The shift from a policy that had emphasized working with powers that be in the region to one urging accommodation of human rights on the ground resulted in part from the high-risk game Obama played as the grass-roots effort to unseat President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years of rule unfolded in Egypt.

Obama administration officials, including Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, at first had expressed confidence in Mubarak, a longtime ally valued in part for maintaining peace with Israel.

When Mubarak proved defiant, however, and offered only limited concessions to protesters, the White House managed to get out a condemnation in the narrow window before it became clear that Mubarak was on his way out.

On Feb. 10, after Mubarak repeated that he would stay until September, Obama put out a statement within an hour calling on Egyptian authorities “to spell out in clear and unambiguous language the step-by-step process that will lead to democracy and the representative government that the Egyptian people seek.”

Within a day Mubarak had resigned, and the White House was able to bask in the impression that its most recent statement had urged him to go — pronto.

That has led to a dynamic of Washington pressing for greater liberties throughout the region while gently reminding the parties that the United States will continue to preserve its interests, said Steve Clemons, an influential foreign policy analyst who has attended National Security Council meetings on Egypt.

“The focus now is to preserve core national interests with other governments, particularly in the Middle East, and at the same time not to put ourselves at odds with publics in the Middle East,” he said.

That means insinuating reminders of where American interests lie in the regions into the same statements that uphold the rights of protesters to call their governments to account.

Obama in his remarks Tuesday was careful to praise Egypt’s transitional military government for offering reassurances that it would preserve the peace treaty with Israel — a signal to candidates in Egyptian elections to take place later this year that the United States would expect the same assurances from an elected government.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done in Egypt itself, but what we’ve seen so far is positive,” Obama said. “The military council that is in charge has reaffirmed its treaties with countries like Israel and international treaties.”

More such pronouncements expressing U.S. strategic interests should be forthcoming, said Steve Rosen, a former top analyst with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

“There’s great anxiety in Israel about all this, although the Israelis have restrained themselves,” Rosen said. “The simple reality is Israel and America’s alliances are with the thin strata of the elite, not with the masses.”

Rosen said that Republicans are not checking Obama because they are under the influence of the party’s neoconservative wing, which for ideological reasons also is embracing the pro-democracy forces in the region.

“Lacking any kind of criticism for its failure to bring up strategic issues, the administration has had a free ride politically,” he observed.

In at least one area, Iran, the Obama administration is using its embrace of democratization to advance strategic goals. Obama and Clinton have referred to the success in Egypt as an example that should spur forward similar protests this week in Iran.

“We have sent a strong message to our allies in the region, saying let’s look at Egypt’s example as opposed to Iran’s example,” Obama said. “I find it ironic that you’ve got the Iranian regime pretending to celebrate what happened in Egypt when, in fact, they have acted in direct contrast to what happened in Egypt by gunning down and beating people who were trying to express themselves peacefully in Iran.”

Administration officials also are using the crises and change in the region to hit back at congressional Republicans who before the upheaval spoke of slashing foreign assistance. Clinton made the Middle East changes a focal point of her congressional meetings this week.

“Events in Egypt show how important it is that we have a global diplomatic presence, a presence that will be ready to handle crises, prevent conflicts, protect American citizens overseas, and protect American economic and strategic interests,” Clinton said after meeting Monday with Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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