Congress Seeks More Iran Sanctions, Frustrates Diplomatic Efforts

Unlike the president, American lawmakers believe that they should put more pressure on Iran.

General Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks with Republican senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina in Washington DC, February 7
General Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks with Republican senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina in Washington DC, February 7 (Department of Defense/Chad J. McNeeley)

With multilateral negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program once again at a standstill, the United States Congress has launched a renewed push to target Iranian financial institutions and cut their access to international markets.

The House of Representatives and Senate are working on own separate bills that would tighten the economic screws on Tehran for its nuclear noncompliance, a campaign that has the potential to further complicate the Obama Administration’s negotiating strategy.

On May Wednesday, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs proposed one of the toughest pieces of legislation to date on Iran’s nuclear program. The bill, if enacted, would target any foreign bank, company or individual that knowingly conducts commercial trade with an Iranian institution that is under sanctions. Countries that currently import Iranian crude oil will be mandated to decrease the amount they purchase over the next year. And the legislation would put additional sanctions on Iran’s shipping industry in an attempt to obstruct the country’s ability to ship goods.

In other words, the House proposal would deny much of Iran’s economy access to markets, creating a small trade embargo.

The Senate version would make it far more difficult for Iran to acquire euros from overseas banks, the currency it has used to stabilize its economy as oil exports have dwindled in the last two years. Any foreign bank that conducts a transaction with the Central Bank of Iran in euros would be banned from participating in the American market. The aim is too limit the amount of euros that Iran can accumulate in its foreign exchange reserves while making it incredibly difficult for the Iranian government to access its overseas accounts.

Also on Wednesday, the Senate unanimously adopted legislation put forward by South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham that urges President Barack Obama to enforce all economic sanctions on Iran while committing the United States to support Israel in the event it chooses to strike Tehran’s nuclear program in self-defense.

While continuing to weaken Iran’s economic health is undoubtedly the main objective of the bills, Congress may also have something else in mind. By passing legislation with a bipartisan majority, the sanctions would limit President Obama’s diplomatic maneuverability.

Unconditional and patient diplomacy with Iran over the nuclear issue has never been a particularly popular policy in Congress with some members of the president’s own party often questioning whether the Iranians are truly interested in a negotiated outcome. Pushing sanctions bills against Iran has also been a reliable way for congressmen and senators to attract media attention and elevate their profiles. While the two parties are almost incapable of finding compromise on any other issue, levying more pressure on Iran is about the only thing Democrats and Republicans can agree to these days.

Secretary of State John Kerry pleaded with lawmakers earlier this year to hold off on more Iran sanctions, saying that the administration’s diplomatic strategy needed to run its course before more punitive measures were introduced. His words do not appear to have resonated with the vast majority of legislators.

As far as the administration and its allies are concerned, diplomacy is the one option that can permanently end Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions. Hundreds of members of the House and the Senate believe that Iran will not budge unless it recognizes that its present course will only aggravate its people’s economic suffering and make a preemptive military strike more likely in the months ahead.

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