Woman passes former US Embassy in Tehran, Iran. (Photo: ninara)
The Senate quietly passed legislation Thursday implementing tough new sanctions against Iran that advocacy groups say will cause more pain for the citizens of the country than for the government it's intended to cripple.
The sanctions would target gasoline companies and Iranian imports of refined petroleum products. In addition, the bill includes provisions to ban imports to the US and exports to Iran, with the exception of food, medicine and other humanitarian aid goods. Assets of certain Iranian individuals could also be frozen.
Aside from these direct sanctions, the bill, passed in a voice vote after only five minutes of debate, would also force the US to ban trade with foreign companies which continue to do business with Iran that is subject to sanctions.
Thursday's passage came as a surprise to many, as Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) had implied Tuesday that the bill would not reemerge for weeks.
"We have all watched the Iranian regime oppress its own people on the streets of Iran and continue to defy the international community on nuclear issues," Sen. Reid said in a statement. "That is why it is so important that we move this legislation forward quickly."
Lara Friedman, director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now, an advocacy group that has frequently weighed in on Middle East issues, speculated in a statement that Sen. Reid pushed the bill forward because he is facing a tough re-election campaign and believed he needed the backing of the bill's supporters.
Addressing the reasons why the Democrats stood firm with the bill rather than with President Obama, Friedman mentioned several factors such as "a sense of defeatism," "blind faith" that the bill would be improved later on and the belief that supporting the bill would cost them the least amount of political capital.
Passage of the bill was swift. With few senators in the chamber, the Senate didn't allow for amendments or a roll call vote, and the legislation passed in its original form.
It is unclear whether Obama intends to sign it into law. The administration has repeatedly stated that it opposes broad sanctions that would harm the Iranian people. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has particularly stressed the need for "smarter" sanctions which would target actual decision-makers in Iran.
The House passed sanctions legislation in December that resembles the House bill, but there are differences in the two bills which will have to be resolved before the new sanctions go into effect.
While broad sanctions can put large amounts of economic and political pressure on a country and compel it to change its behavior accordingly, they can also cause crippling problems for the populace while the decision-making elite can often adapt to the sanctions' demands. Though sanctions have succeeded with various countries, in some cases they can take awhile yield results - and even then it is difficult to know whether the sanctions were the impetus for changes. For example, sanctions on South Africa lasted about 30 years before apartheid ended.
The Iran sanctions are designed to help weaken the regime and raise public discontent in an effort to stop Tehran's nuclear program. However, experts worry that the sanctions, while crippling the economy, will hurt the Iranian people far more than the individuals at the top.
According to a statement released by the National Iranian-American Council (NIAC), the bill will impose "indiscriminant, unilateral sanctions that will hurt the Iranian people ... and play into the hands of Iran's rulers, who continue to commit flagrant human rights violations."
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) admitted on the Senate floor that such unilateral sanctions typically "make little or no difference." However, he continued, this measure "is crafted in such a way that it could actually become effective, with America alone not having to depend on the cooperation of the other countries that tend to be less concerned about whether Iran ultimately becomes armed with nuclear weapons."
"If the Obama administration will not take action against this regime," he argued, "Then Congress must."
Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Connecticut), chairman of the Senate Banking Committee and a sponsor of the bill, noted himself during the discussion that "multilateral sanctions are likely to be more effective than those we impose unilaterally."
But though other multilateral efforts are still on the table, Dodd said in a statement, "It is our job to arm our President with a comprehensive set of tough sanctions designed to ratchet up pressure on the Iranian regime."
Those opposed to the bill, however, say that these policies would actually lock the administration into enforcing the sanctions without much room for flexibility. For example, if President Obama were to disagree with applying the sanctions in certain cases, under the rules of the bill, he would have to seek a waiver each and every time. This would also force the administration to unilaterally sanction countries who continue to trade goods that the bill prohibits, without consulting them.
The passage of this bill might also harm President Obama's efforts to take action with international support. Jamal Abdi, policy director of NIAC, said that the bill will especially harm attempts to get China and Russia's cooperation and support. "This will give them an excuse to say, 'Look, the US is going at it alone, it doesn't care about alienating its allies and partners and it's not going to cooperative with multilateral initiatives,'" he said.
Based on the number of votes the bill received in the House and the current atmosphere of the Senate, President Obama might not be able to veto the bill and avert an override, which would require less than three-fourths approval in the House and two-thirds approval in the Senate.
News of the legislation passing came following the Iranian government's hanging of two political dissidents convicted of trying to trying to topple the "Islamic establishment." This was the first known execution of political activists following the Iranian presidential elections in June and the ensuing political unrest.
"We think that the Iranian people are rising up," said Abdi, in regards to the political protests taking place since the election. "The US should stop the sanctions that hurt the people and do nothing to hurt the government."