Navigate to News section

Senate Approves Iran Sanctions

But the U.S. may not really want them

Marc Tracy
January 29, 2010

Yesterday afternoon, the U.S. Senate passed a bill—similar to one the House of Representatives has already okayed—that would impose significant additional sanctions on the Iranian elite as well as energy companies that do business with the Islamic Republic (the bill was passed by voice vote, so the yeas and nays are not reported). This came one day after President Barack Obama warned, in his State of the Union address, “As Iran’s leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt: they, too, will face growing consequences. That is a promise.” He was unmistakably referring to the same thing the Senate bill is: Iran’s U.N.-flouting, probably-not-merely-peaceful nuclear program.

The bill would:
• Bar U.S. financial institutions from extending loans or other assistance to companies that export gasoline to Iran or contract with it for oil-refining projects;
• Ban U.S.-Iran imports and exports (other than food and medicine);
• Empower the U.S. to freeze the assets of Revolutionary Guardsmen and other Iranians involved in proliferation or terrorism;
• Make private-sector divestment from sanctioned energy companies easier;
• Crack down on the technology black market.

The next step is for a joint committee to craft a compromise between the House and Senate bills. That bill would then be voted on by both houses; then, Obama could sign it.

Obama supported the House bill … sorta. As Allison Hoffman noted last month, the threat of further congressional sanctions may be more valuable to U.S. diplomats than actual further congressional sanctions. That’s because much more effective sanctions could come from the international community—most likely in the form of the U.N. Security Council—and the White House believes it will have an easier time corralling reluctant countries (that is, Russia and especially China) if it has a bit more flexibility to offer carrots along with sticks, and if it can point to the potential for that kooky legislative branch to do something all crazy and such if the Security Council fails to get its act together. Plus, the sanctions the bill envisions could find themselves harming these other countries’ cherished energy companies, which likely will not endear them to yet further sanctions.

It did not take AIPAC long to send us its statement praising the Senate and condemning Iran, and adding: “AIPAC urges conferees to move rapidly in order to return the bill for final passage as soon as possible. This is an urgent matter.”

While the realpolitik-inclined may not share AIPAC’s sense of urgency, at least regarding these sanctions, they probably do share its desire for a nuclear-free Iran: the White House was on record approving at least the House bill; and so was dovish “pro-Israel, pro-peace” J Street, AIPAC’s bedfellow at last.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.