March 21, 2006 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Pushing Iran

While the world dithers over Iran's runaway nuclear (weapons) program, the House International Relations Committee last week called for action against the Tehran regime: It passed the Iran Freedom Support Act by an overwhelming 37-3 margin.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who chairs the Middle East subcommittee, introduced the bill over a year ago. It punishes Iran indirectly by directly punishing its various energy partners - both foreign governments and private businesses. Though not yet scheduled for a vote by the entire House of Representatives, the act already has over 350 co-sponsors (out of 435 members) - and could be on the floor for passage soon. Some 40 senators have already signed onto a similar Senate bill.

The Bush administration loathes the measure, arguing that it ties the government's hands in dealing with Iran's atomic intransigence at the U.N. Security Council. In fact, though, the bill may put another arrow in the administration's (nearly empty) diplomatic quiver for addressing Iran's outlaw behavior.

First, take a look at the text of the Iran Freedom Support Act. It aims to both promote freedom and penalize proliferation by holding "the current regime in Iran accountable for its threatening behavior and to support a transition to democracy in Iran." Who can argue with that?

To that end, the bill would authorize the president to "provide financial and political assistance" to those who "support democracy" in Iran, including independent, pro-democracy radio/TV broadcasting. Hmmm, that seems right in line with the prez's $75 million Iranian democracy initiative . . .

In fact, the Bush administration supports the bill's democracy-promotion section. But it sees the provisions for economic sanctions as counterproductive.

The bill revises the 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (which also sought to counter both terrorism and proliferation), dropping the earlier law's penalties against the "new and improved" Libya, while continuing economic sanctions on anyone that invests more than $20 million in Iran's energy sector. (Except for limited imports of pistachio, caviar and Persian rugs, U.S. firms are already prohibited from doing business with Iran, dating back to the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the taking of U.S. embassy hostages.)

The State Department complains that the bill hampers its ability to "build and maintain an international consensus to confront Iran's violations collectively," raising tensions with potential partners and shifting "the focus away from Iran's actions" and onto American actions.

International Relations Chairman Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) supports the proposed law, but is skeptical, too: "By threatening tough sanctions, not against Iran but against third parties who invest in Iran's petroleum industry, [the bill] targets our allies. The approach is divisive and, understandably, our allies have resisted."

Both State and Hyde make good points, since the bill targets Japanese, French, Chinese and Russian firms, among others. But the measure allows the president to waive any sanctions if the White House deems it to serve the country's national-security interests.

What the critics overlook is that the mere consideration of the Iran Freedom Support Act, including all of the congressional drama that accompanies it, serves the Bush administration's efforts in dealing with Tehran - and others.

How? First, by dropping the longstanding economic sanctions against Libya (because Tripoli has ended its quest for WMDs and its support for terrorism), Congress shows Tehran a potential upside to ending its hostile relationship with the Washington.

Second, legislative threats are often as effective as signing a bill into law. For instance, congressional chest-beating by itself could deter investment in Iran's energy sector, penalizing the highly centralized Iranian economy, which is heavily dependent on oil/gas exports (i.e., 20 percent of GNP). (A falloff in foreign investment would have the added benefit of limiting Tehran's spending on its own expensive nuclear infrastructure - slowing the mullahs' quest for atomic weapons.)

Third, the bill gives the U.S. negotiating leverage. The president can warn our always-reluctant-to-get-tough European "allies" and our even-less-supportive "friends" in Moscow and Beijing that, even if he thinks the legislation is ill-advised, he will have no choice but to sign the wildly popular bill if the mullahs don't make some serious concessions soon. Call this one: the "Mad Congress" defense.

Alternatively, if major players like Russia and China come into line with the U.S.-European position at the U.N. Security Council, Bush could promise to do everything possible to kill the bill, or, at a minimum, promise to invoke the waiver.

Now, it's completely understandable that the executive branch doesn't like the legislative branch playing in its foreign-policy sandbox. But the Bush administration doesn't have to view the bill as undermining its effort to deal with Iran.

In fact, if it's smart, our foreign policy team will see the abundant opportunities in skillfully playing the administration's "good cop" off the Congress' "bad cop" in advancing American interests on Iran.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow. His book, "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States," is just out.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the New York Post