Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May 2012, Pages 27-29

Congress Watch

AIPAC's Annual Meeting Beats the Drums Of War With Iran

By Shirl McArthur

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AIPAC's March 4-6 annual meeting in Washington, DC again provided congressional leaders and other Israel acolytes the opportunity to genuflect to the altar of Israel. As opposed to previous years, when the conference focus was on the Israel-Palestine issue, this year's emphasis was on Iran. In effect, the major theme seemed to be a call for war with Iran.

AIPAC's chosen congressional vehicles for this call were the identical S.Res. 380, introduced Feb. 16 by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and H.Res. 568, introduced March 1 by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL). Both measures barely mention the possibility of a peaceful resolution to the issue of Iran's nuclear program. Instead, they would give the "sense of Congress" that "containing" a nuclear Iran is not an option, and that it is in the vital national interest of the U.S. to prevent the Iranian government from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. They would "urge the president to reaffirm the unacceptability of an Iran with nuclear-weapons capability and oppose any policy that would rely on containment as an option in response to the Iranian nuclear threat."

Many observers have pointed out that this could be a call for war, because Iran already has a "nuclear-weapons capability." As Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson said in a March 9 column, "the truth is that every nation with sufficient wealth and scientific infrastructure has the capacity to build a bomb if it really wants to."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was slightly more nuanced. He said he would support a resolution saying that "if Iran at any time begins to enrich uranium at weapons-grade levels, or decides to go ahead with a nuclear weapons program, then the U.S. will use military force to end that program."

Under relentless AIPAC pressure, members of Congress flocked to sign on to the measures. Within a week, S.Res. 380 had 59 co-sponsors, and H.Res. 568 had 95.

Several other anti-Iran measures were introduced in Congress. The most significant was S. 2101, the "Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Human Rights" bill introduced Feb. 13 by Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD), with no co-sponsors. This is a slightly pared down version of S. 1048, introduced last May by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the Senate companion to H.R. 1905, also introduced last May and passed by the House in December. (Neither S. 1048, which has 82 co-sponsors, nor H.R. 1905 has been brought to the floor of the Senate.)

Among S. 2101's many provisions is one that would direct the president to freeze the assets of a person who has transferred to Iran goods or services likely to be used to commit human rights abuses, and impose specified sanctions against persons and firms that have committed human rights abuses. The bill would also expand sanctions to cover companies involved in joint ventures that aid Iran's energy sector, target any Iranian joint ventures involving uranium mining, authorize the administration to target corporate executives of sanctioned firms, and require U.S. companies to report to the Securities and Exchange Commission business they have with any Iranian firms that could fall under sanctions.

Another provision, introduced as an amendment by Menendez, would go after Iran's participation in the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT), the international clearing house for financial transactions used by all major financial institutions, including most Iranian banks and institutions. Menendez's amendment would impose sanctions on banks having officers on SWIFT's board if SWIFT fails to stop processing transactions for Iranian banks. The previously described H.R. 3880, introduced in February by Ros-Lehtinen, which also would sanction SWIFT member banks, has only four co-sponsors, including Ros-Lehtinen.

(SWIFT, based in Belgium, is subject to European Union laws, and on March 15 said that, effective March 17, it would discontinue its communications services to Iranian financial institutions to comply with EU sanctions on Iranian banks.)

On March 20, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the U.S. would exempt Japan and 10 EU members countries from the sanctions enacted as part of the Defense Authorization Act passed in December 2011 that impose penalties for doing business with the Central Bank of Iran. As described in this magazine's previous issue, the law allows the president to exempt countries from the sanctions if the country "has significantly reduced the volume of its crude oil purchases from Iran," and Clinton said that these 11 countries had, indeed, significantly done so.

S. Res. 386 "calling for free and fair elections in Iran" was introduced by Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) on March 1 and passed by the full Senate on March 5, with 67 co-sponsors. H.R. 4179 was introduced March 8 by Reps. Brad Sherman (D-CA) and Ros-Lehtinen. It would "strengthen the multilateral sanctions regime with respect to Iran, expand sanctions relating to the energy sector of Iran, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by Iran, and human rights abuses in Iran." H.R. 4070, introduced Feb. 16 by Rep. Bob Turner (R-NY) with 14 co-sponsors, would "clarify" certain provisions relating to blocked Iranian assets in the U.S.

Of the previously described bills, H.R. 3783, introduced in January by Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC), was ordered reported to the full House by Ros-Lehtinen's House Foreign Affairs Committee on March 7, with 75 co-sponsors. It would proclaim that "it shall be U.S. policy to use all elements of national power to counter Iran's growing presence and hostile activity in the Western Hemisphere." This bill apparently is meant to replace the similar H.Res. 429, introduced by Duncan last October.

Also, H.R. 3843, introduced in January by Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), to amend the Iran sanctions act of 2010 "to provide for the imposition of sanctions with respect to the National Iranian Oil Company and the National Iranian Tanker Company," still has no co-sponsors. Similarly, S. 2058, introduced in February by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), "to close loopholes, increase transparency, and improve the effectiveness of sanctions on Iranian trade in petroleum products," has gained just one co-sponsor, and now has 18, including Murkowski.

A Few Representatives Call for a More Sane Approach to Iran

Some members of Congress did not join in the sabre rattling. On March 8 Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), with nine co-sponsors, introduced H.R. 4173, which would "direct the president of the U.S. to appoint a high-level U.S. representative or special envoy for Iran for the purpose of ensuring that the U.S. pursues all diplomatic avenues to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, [and] to avoid a war with Iran." Previously, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) on Feb. 16 spoke passionately on the House floor decrying "the rhetoric around Washington and the nation," saying "it is literally impossible not to hear the drumbeat of war with Iran," and concluding that "America cannot afford another war. We've just gotten out of Iraq. We're getting out of Afghanistan. And diplomacy, diplomacy, diplomacy is what is called for to avoid a new war with Iran." Also, Ellison and Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) are circulating for signatures a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to use "all available tools of diplomacy to resolve the crisis over Iran's nuclear program and prevent another costly war in the Middle East."

Senator McCain Calls for U.S.-Led Airstrikes on Syrian Forces

In a long speech on the Senate floor March 5, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) called for the U.S. to "lead an international effort to protect key population centers in Syria, especially in the north, through airstrikes on [President Bashar al-] Assad's forces." McCain's speech went further than any previous calls from Capitol Hill for action against Assad, and few other congressional voices were raised in support of his call. Even Ros-Lehtinen, not known for moderation regarding Middle East countries not named Israel, said that airstrikes against Syria are tempting but ultimately not a good idea.

Senate sentiment is divided between those calling for a more active response to the bloodshed in Syria, and those urging caution, and the several new bills regarding Syria reflect those differences. S.Res. 370 was introduced by Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) on Feb. 9, with nine co-sponsors. It would, among other things, urge Obama to "(1) support a transition to democracy in Syria; (2) develop a plan to identify weapons stockpiles and prevent their proliferation in Syria; and (3) engage with Turkey, [Arab] League members, and the European Union to protect the Syrian people."

This was too strong for some members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, especially Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN) and Chairman John Kerry (D-MA). Then Kerry, on Feb. 16, introduced the alternative S.Res. 379, which would condemn the government of Syria for use of force against civilians and encourage the U.N. Security Council "to pursue a resolution supporting a political solution to the Syrian crisis." The full Senate passed S.Res. 379 on Feb. 17.

Reflecting a more aggressive stance, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) on March 2 introduced the far-reaching S. 2152, "to promote U.S. policy objectives in Syria, including the departure from power of President Bashar al-Assad and his family, the effective transition to a democratic, free, and secure country, and the promotion of a prosperous future in Syria." This includes provisions similar to those in the comprehensive Iran sanctions bills described above, including sanctions on Syria's petroleum sector and sanctions on foreign financial institutions that do business with the Central Bank of Syria. Similarly, the above-described S. 2101, although it deals primarily with Iran, also includes a provision imposing sanctions on Syrian officials and others who commit or facilitate human rights abuses against the Syrian people.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), with two co-sponsors, on Jan. 24 introduced S. 2034 "to impose sanctions with respect to human rights abuses committed against the people of Syria." And on March 8 Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), with nine co-sponsors, introduced S.Res. 391 "condemning violence by the government of Syria against journalists."

In the House, Ellison on Feb. 15 introduced H.Res. 549, which is identical to S.Res. 370, described above. And Ros-Lehtinen's HFAC on March 7 reported out to the full House her H.R. 2106, which she introduced back in June. It would impose a wide range of export, financial, procurement, banking and property sanctions aimed at Syria's energy sector, and would impose sanctions on certain Syrian officials guilty of human rights abuses against Syrian citizens. It would also strengthen the sanctions contained in the "Syria Accountability Act" and remove presidential waiver authority for those sanctions. H.R. 2106, with 57 co-sponsors, has not been taken up by the full House, and, given the differences in the Senate described above, it is unlikely that it would be approved by the Senate.

Egypt's Military Aid Threatened Over Its Assault on NGOs

After Egypt raided several Egyptian and foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including three U.S.-based democracy-promoting groups, charging that they were operating illegally, many members of Congress reacted angrily and called for suspension of Egypt's aid. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI), who has received more pro-Israel PAC money than any other member of Congress, and ranking Republican McCain said that withholding aid was "now on the table."

As reported in the March/April 2012 Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Egypt's military and economic aid are conditioned, with presidential waiver authority, on its "supporting the transition to civilian government including holding free and fair elections; implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association, and religion, and the due process of law."

In early February the State Department signaled that it would not move any aid money to Cairo as long as the standoff over treatment of the NGOs continued, but The New York Timesreported on March 16 that Obama was considering exercising his waiver authority in order to preserve what's left of Washington's leverage with Egyptian officials and to maintain ongoing U.S. contracts resulting from the aid. Reportedly, however, the money will not be sent all at once, as is the usual procedure, but rather in portions.

Legislatively, the only measure concerning the issue has been the Feb. 14 introduction by Kerry and three co-sponsors of S.Res. 372, "recognizing the importance of the U.S.-Egypt relationship, and urging the government of Egypt to protect civil liberties and cease intimidation and prosecution of civil society workers and democracy activists."

Other Pro-Israel Actions

Other measures strongly pushed at AIPAC's conference were H.R. 4133, introduced March 5 by Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA), and its Senate companion, S. 2165, introduced March 6 by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), "to enhance strategic cooperation between the U.S. and Israel." The two "sense of Congress" provisions amount to a wish-list of goodies for Israel. Ignoring the Constitution's granting of foreign policy authority to the president, the bills also include a list of "policy" statements in support of Israel, including one "to reaffirm the enduring commitment of the U.S. to the security of Israel" and one "to help Israel preserve its qualitative military edge amid rapid and uncertain regional political transformation." The only one even alluding to the quest for peace with the Palestinians is completely one-sided. It would declare it to be U.S. policy "to assist Israel with its ongoing efforts to forge a peaceful, negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that results in two states living side by side in peace and security, and to encourage Israel's neighbors to recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state."

After AIPAC's pressure, H.R. 4133 has 93 co-sponsors, including Cantor, and S. 2165 has four, including Boxer.

Even the AIPAC-promoted Jerusalem Embassy bill, H.R. 1006, introduced in March 2011 by Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN), has gained co-sponsors and now has 54, including Burton. It would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, cut off some State Department funding unless the U.S. Embassy in Israel is established in Jerusalem no later than Jan. 1, 2013, and remove the presidential waiver authority included in the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995.

Obama's Feb. 13 submission to Congress of his FY '13 budget included a footnote saying that the State Department "intends to work with Congress to seek legislation that would provide authority to waive restrictions on paying the U.S. assessed contributions to UNESCO." This refers to obsolete provisions in laws passed in 1990 and 1994, described in this magazine's January/February 2012 issue, prohibiting U.S. contributions to "the U.N. or any specialized agency thereof which accords the PLO the same standing as member states." The budget footnote did not sit well with Ros-Lehtinen, who issued a statement saying she was "deeply disappointed," implying she would work to prevent any effort to lift the restriction. (Ros-Lehtinen, by the way, continues to block about $150 million of FY '12 aid for the Palestinians.)

Obama's budget submission also reduced the amount of support for Israel's missile defense programs to $99.8 million, as opposed to the $216 million appropriated for FY '12. Ros-Lehtinen and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) immediately wrote to Obama urging "in the strongest terms" that he reconsider this request. 


Shirl McArthur, a retired U.S. foreign service officer, is a consultant based in the Washington, DC area.

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