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Building a Case Against Iran

Just hours before Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was scheduled to address the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act by a lopsided margin of 397-16. The act would ratchet-up sanctions against Iranian economic and political entities and target countries and companies that do business with Iran.

One can hardly blame the House for wanting to punish Iran. It defied the U.N. Security Council’s demand last year to suspend uranium enrichment. And Gen. Petraeus, commander of the Multi-National Force in Iraq, testified before the Congress earlier this month that advanced Iranian weaponry was being used against coalition forces.

Under these circumstances, no politician can afford to look weak on Iran, and sanctions are one of the few concrete measures the Congress can take to demonstrate its resolve. Add to this the fact that a number of influential civil society organizations have mobilized their constituencies and lobbied hard to get the bill passed, and you have a seemingly irresistible piece of legislation. In this sense at least, the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act is unremarkable.

What is remarkable, however, is the list of Senators that have not joined on as co-sponsors of the parallel legislation in the Senate. That legislation has already attracted 68 Senators, split between the two parties. Conspicuously absent from the list are key foreign policy voices from both parties, including both the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: Sens. Biden (D-DE) and Lugar (R-IN). Other notable no-shows (as of this writing) include Sens. Domenici (R-NM), Feingold (D-WI), Feinstein (D-CA), Hagel (R-NE), Rockefeller (D-WV), Shelby (R-AL), Warner (R-VA), and Webb (D-VA).

Their forbearance in the face of what must be significant political pressure deserves praise. The act is symptomatic of the strategic ambiguity that colors, and indeed undermines, U.S. policy towards Iran. Consider Section 403 of the act, “Exchange Programs with the People of Iran.” This provision, which aims to “enhance [America’s] friendship with the people of Iran,” may seem innocuous enough. But what is this provision, with its overtones of democracy promotion, doing in a bill that purports to be about countering Iran’s nuclear program?

Prelude to War?

When viewed against the backdrop of recent developments in U.S. debates over Iran policy, the provision looks suspiciously like part of a much broader agenda. Consider the following data points: In August, the Bush administration announced its intention to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a foreign terrorist organization under U.S. law due to its intimate involvement in Iran’s nuclear program, its alleged interference in Iraq, and its support for militant anti-Israeli groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. And provisions in the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act would effectively force the president to make this designation. The designation itself was created in the aftermath of 9/11 to strengthen the president’s authority to target Al Qaeda’s finances.

The day after the House passed the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act, the Senate passed the so-called Kyl-Lieberman amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill by a margin of 76-22. The amendment expresses the sense of the Senate that the United States should be prepared to use military force against Iran in connection with that country’s alleged meddling in Iraq. All this occurs against the backdrop of right wing conservatives agitating for “bolder” action against Iran—both within the Bush administration and on the pages of conservative publications such as The Weekly Standard.

To an objective observer, this looks suspiciously like a reinvigorated U.S. policy of regime change in Iran, or more ominously, like a government laying the groundwork for military action. Some will applaud this ambiguity as a way to keep Iran guessing about U.S. intentions. But the appearance of saber-rattling by the world’s greatest military power is hardly likely to convince an isolated, paranoid country like Iran to renounce its nuclear capability. And an effort to designate the IRGC a foreign terrorist organization in the midst of all this saber-rattling will only unite Iran’s otherwise divided ruling elite behind Ahmadinejad’s confrontational approach, as Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour recently argued.

Moreover, this tactic will alienate, not attract, key partners and allies. The United States cannot contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions without the support of European nations, and ideally China and Russia too. Nearly all of these countries, however, will balk at participating in any endeavor that they fear will be exploited to support a U.S. policy of regime change or military action.

Pushing Russia, or Pushing Russia Away?

The sanctions and related measures in the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act are also problematic. Foremost among them is a clumsy attempt to pressure Russia into toeing a harder line against Iran. The act would require Russia to end its sales of conventional weapons to Iran and terminate construction of the civilian energy reactor at Bushehr as a condition to enhanced U.S.-Russian cooperation on civilian nuclear energy development.

For the past several years, U.S. and Russian officials have toyed with the idea of Russia hosting a repository for U.S.-origin spent nuclear fuel. This would relieve the United States of ultimate responsibility for storing the fuel, and provide Russia with a tidy source of revenue—up to $20 billion over 10-15 years, according to some estimates. The Bush administration also regards Russia as an important partner in its broader effort to promote nuclear energy worldwide through such initiatives as the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership.

The United States must continue to oppose Russia’s sales of conventional weapons to Iran. But Russia’s increasingly assertive, and at times belligerent, behavior in the past several years ought to dispel any hope that holding up a nuclear cooperation agreement will coerce a fundamental change in its Iran policy. Rather, such a transparent attempt by the United States to economically coerce it would strengthen the hand of hardliners in Moscow who reject Russian cooperation with the United States and see Iran as an important tactical ally in the Middle East.

As for Russia’s cooperation with Iran on civilian nuclear matters, a bit of perspective is in order. Moscow has, after all, delayed completion of the Bushehr reactor, ostensibly because Iran hasn’t made good on payments, but more probably because of Iran’s intransigence over its enrichment and reprocessing programs. It has also required that Iran lease nuclear fuel for Bushehr (the only energy reactor under construction in Iran) from Russia and repatriate the spent fuel back to Russia—an important safeguard against Iran diverting nuclear fuel to a weapons program. Finally, Russia has also supported two rounds of Security Council sanctions, which is no small thing given Russian paranoia about the Bush administration using Security Council sanctions resolutions as a pretext for military action.

Moscow could of course do more—it would be nice if it abandoned the Bushehr project altogether. But the United States has spent more than a decade trying to convince the Russians to abandon that project, to no avail. And if the meek, humiliated Russia of the 1990s wouldn’t change its tune on Bushehr, surely the assertive, nationalistic Russia of 2007 won’t either. Like it or not, the United States has to deal with Russia as it is, not as we would like it to be.

The United States must continue to pursue sanctions against Iran in order to increase the pressure on Tehran to comply with the Security Council’s demand to suspend uranium enrichment. But unilateral U.S. sanctions must not come at the expense of multilateral sanctions or the broader international coalition against Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It will be up to the U.S. Senate, as it considers the sanctions package contained in the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act in the coming weeks and months, to ensure that they do not.