Last night, the Senate voted to pass disastrous legislation under the auspices of getting "tough" on Iran. Unfortunately, the bill is only "tough" on the Iranian people, punishing them in the midst of their historic struggle for rights while hamstringing the President as he deals with Iran's nuclear program. To top it off, the world's greatest deliberative body spent a whopping 5 minutes debating the bill. The Majority Leader refused to consider any amendments, including significant changes proposed by the Administration and ultimately the bill passed by voice vote in front of a mostly empty chamber.
The bill, S.2799, the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act of 2009, is composed of several outdated ideas conceived well before the tectonic shift in Iran that followed stolen June elections. Like the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act recently passed by the House, this bill would cut off gasoline that Iranians use to heat their homes and fuel their cars. The Senate has signaled that, in the midst of the Iranian people's stand against brutal repression from their own government, the US Government intends to punish them as well.
Given the images of brave Iranians taking to the streets and the videos of brutal government repression that continue stream out of Iran, it is understandable that Congress wants to help. Just yesterday, two more political dissidents were executed, and since December's Ashura protests up to 1,500 people have been detained or simply disappeared. But if Congress wants to act, why are they going forward with a failed strategy that has been publicly opposed by the leaders of the Green Movement on numerous occasions? If Congress wants to address human rights and reduce the Iranian people's suffering, why are they passing measures to undermine Iran's opposition and "cripple" its economy?
The Senate bill also significantly restricts President Obama's authority to carry out Iran policy. It weakens the President's flexibility in ways Republicans wouldn't have dreamed of during the Bush administration and perpetuates the same "with us or against us" approach of that era by hindering the United States' ability to work with international partners. As Minority Leader Mitch McConnell put it, the legislation was crafted so that the United States could go it alone and not "depend on the cooperation of the other countries".
The definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. The United States is only now extricating itself from a war in Iraq that was presaged by years of "crippling" sanctions against that country. Those sanctions did nothing to change Iraq's behavior but instead caused the death of 500,000 Iraqi children and paved the way for a US invasion.
Congress is not talking about war with Iran, yet. But if they are intent on denying Iran from importing gasoline, a naval blockade will be necessary, which is an act of war. Is the United States really prepared to start sinking ships to block gasoline from reaching Iran? Do such stirrings of war do anything but undermine Iran's opposition movement?
Ironically, this bill would play right into the hands of an Iranian government eager to end gasoline subsidies that are already strangling its economy. Iran imports its gasoline at market prices but then resells it to Iranians, costing Iran about 10 to 20 percent of its GDP. The government has tried several times to eliminate this tremendous burden but with little success. By cutting off Iran's gasoline imports, the US would enable the government to end the giveaway and blame America, freeing up cash for other priorities such as the nuclear program or Basij militias.
The Senate would be wise to reconsider this failed strategy and consider a new approach adjusted to the dramatic events in Iran of the past eight months. The new strategy should target Iran's human rights abusers while eliminating existing US policies that punish innocent Iranians. The Obama Administration has demonstrated that they are taking account of this new landscape and recently announced that it would remove barriers on Internet freedom software for Iranians. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has reiterated on numerous occasions the Administration's support for multilateral "efforts to apply pressure on Iran" that do not "punish the Iranian people".
There are good proposals that have been introduced in the House that embody this new approach--H.R.4303, the Stand with the Iranian People Act and H.R.4301, the Iranian Digital Empowerment Act. Congress should act on these smart proposals as part of a new strategy attuned to the events on the ground in Iran. Otherwise, they risk sabotaging the opposition movement in Iran by applying the same failed strategy of the last thirty years to a dramatically changed reality. Congress can still adopt a strategy in sync with this new reality before sending a bill to the President. Let's hope they adjust before it is too late.