House Approves Gasoline Cutoff Bill on Iran Despite Warnings

(Dec. 16) -U.S. Representative Howard Berman (D-Calif.), shown in June, argued that sanctions legislation passed by the House of Representatives yesterday could help pressure Iran to halt its disputed nuclear activities (Natalia Kolesnikova/Getty Images).
(Dec. 16) -U.S. Representative Howard Berman (D-Calif.), shown in June, argued that sanctions legislation passed by the House of Representatives yesterday could help pressure Iran to halt its disputed nuclear activities (Natalia Kolesnikova/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. House of Representatives yesterday overwhelmingly approved legislation that would punish foreign companies that sell gasoline to Iran, or assist it with its own domestic refining ability, despite warnings that the measure was not likely to compel a change in that country's nuclear policies (see GSN, Dec. 15).

The bill -- titled the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act -- could "produce the least desirable results" for the United States, including increased popular support for Tehran's regime and the elite Revolutionary Guard; penalization of the urban, politically progressive elements in the country's middle class; and disputes with allies on future multilateral sanctions, according to James Dobbins, director of RAND Corp.'s International Security and Defense Policy Center.

"Historically, sanctions have seldom forced improved behavior on the part of targeted regimes," Dobbins said yesterday during a morning hearing of the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee.

Hours later, the full chamber voted 412-12 to approve the measure, which would strengthen the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996 and prohibit companies that ship gasoline and other refined petroleum products to Iran from receiving contracts with the U.S. government. Supporters claim it is one of the best options in trying to halt Iran's nuclear weapon program.

"The Iranian nuclear issue could have been resolved without further sanctions," Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.) said on the House floor before the vote, adding that Tehran has not responded positively to the Obama administration's diplomatic overtures.

"I believe that passage and implementation of this act would have a powerful effect on the Iranian economy. And I believe it would force unpalatable budgetary choices on the Iranian regime, vastly increasing the domestic political cost of pursuing its nuclear program," Berman said.

In an editorial published Monday in the Los Angeles Times, that panel's ranking member, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), wrote that "by placing financial sanctions on U.S. and foreign companies providing these crucial resources, Iran's economic lifeline would be severed and its already weak economy would crumble."

Iran has long insisted that its atomic aspirations are strictly peaceful but the United States and other world powers have viewed that assertion with increasing skepticism. A British newspaper report this week indicated that Tehran as of 2007 was working on technology that had only nuclear-weapon applications.

In addition, Iran has waffled on a U.N. proposal for the country to ship roughly 70 percent of its low-enriched uranium to other nations for further refinement, addressing fears that the material could be upgraded indigenously for weapons purposes. The plan calls for the material to be enriched in France and Russia and then returned to Iran for use in a medical research reactor.

A senior Iranian oil official said today that fuel sanctions would not prove problematic because Tehran has many gasoline suppliers.

"They cannot succeed," Hojjatollah Ghanimifard, vice president of investment affairs at the state National Iranian Oil Co., told Reuters.

The Senate's version of the petroleum bill is being revised after failing to pass last week, House national security subcommittee Chairman John Tierney (D-Mass.) told Global Security Newswire after the hearing. He predicted the two bills would not be reconciled until 2010.

The White House did not have an immediate comment regarding its position on the bill.

Some lawmakers argued that the legislation would not have its intended effect of turning Tehran away from nuclear advancement.

The measure "undermines the rare unity the U.N. Security Council demonstrated by passage of several resolutions on Iran," said Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio). "Perhaps most significantly, the implications of this bill will isolate the United States, not Iran, from the international community."

Added Representative Ron Paul (R-Texas): "As we have learned with U.S. sanctions on Iraq, and indeed with U.S. sanctions on Cuba and elsewhere, it is citizens rather than government who suffer most."

Their comments echoed those made hours earlier by the experts speaking before the national security panel.

"I find it predictably ironic that less than a year after the Obama administration began its efforts to engage the Iranians in a comprehensive diplomatic dialogue, the discourse in Washington and around the world has already shifted toward an enthusiastic embrace of punitive measures," said Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brooking Institution.

Washington has an "auspicious" 30-year track record of unilateral sanctions against Tehran that "have not achieved their objective; which is the moderation of Iran's security and foreign policy," she added.

"The notion that Iranians would welcome American efforts to cut off supplies of heating and gasoline to me sounds like the same kind of logic that suggested Iraqis would greet us as liberators after we violently removed their regime," she said.

Maloney argued the new sanctions could have a detrimental impact on Iran's emerging opposition movement and that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government could circumvent the penalties through the country's nationalized gas rationing program, its transition to fueling vehicles with natural gas, and crafting deals with Venezuela and China to increase gasoline imports.

Under the law, the United States would then have to sanction companies in those countries, making future cooperation against Iran difficult, she said

"We cannot punish the Iranians into a nuclear deal," said George Lopez, a professor of peace studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Instead, the United States should "invite, embarrass, cajole and incentive" Iran's leadership to abandon its suspected quest for nuclear arms, he said. Any new sanctions should be delayed for another six to nine months, according to Lopez.

Many in the burgeoning Iranian opposition support sanctions against the Revolutionary Guard and specific members of the regime but are adamantly opposed to penalties that would hurt the people at a time of serious economic problems, according to Robin Wright, a fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

The punitive nature of the legislation could also rally the populace to even more strongly support the sitting government, she warned: "Persian nationalism is among the strongest forces in the world."

"If you know a Texan, add 5,000 years and you've got Persian nationalism," Wright said.

Dobbins advocated "limited" sanctions that would include international travel bans on certain government officials; banking penalties against companies owned by the Revolutionary Guard; and a comprehensive embargo on arms sales and transfer of nuclear technology. Any restrictions should be "rapidly reversible," he told the panel.

The heads of the National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee split on the legislation.

Ranking member Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who said he is "not a fan of economic sanctions, particularly those imposed unilaterally," voted against the bill. Tierney supported the plan, after earlier saying he would oppose it unless he received "assurances" that the conference version of the bill would not make the sanctions mandatory and would instead allow President Barack Obama to impose them at his discretion.

"I think it's appropriate for the administration to have the flexibility to pursue sanctions and have a range of those sanctions that they can pursue. I think it's a good arrow to have in your quiver," he said.

December 16, 2009
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WASHINGTON -- The U.S. House of Representatives yesterday overwhelmingly approved legislation that would punish foreign companies that sell gasoline to Iran, or assist it with its own domestic refining ability, despite warnings that the measure was not likely to compel a change in that country's nuclear policies (see GSN, Dec. 15).

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