New round of Iran sanctions pressures Obama to move closer to Israel’s ‘red line’

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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tehranmural
An Iranian woman walks past a mural painting of a revolver on the walls of the former US embassy in Tehran. (Photo: Atta Kenare AFP/Getty Images via Globalpost)

Yet another round of sanctions targeting Iran’s nuclear program was passed yesterday in Congress–the latest measure in what Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor said is a campaign to “tighten the economic noose” around Iran. The bill also represents another effort to pressure President Barack Obama to inch closer to Israel’s “red line” on the Iranian nuclear issue.

Berman and Ros-Lehtinen
Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), left, and Howard Berman (D-CA)
were principal sponsors of the latest Iran sanctions bill
(Photo: AIPAC.org)

The legislation, titled the “Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012″ (H.R. 1905), passed easily in both houses of Congress. In the House, the vote was 421-6, with anti-war stalwarts like Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul speaking out against the bill. The bill was so uncontroversial in the Senate that it passed by unanimous consent. President Obama, who announced a separate set of sanctions on July 31, is expected to sign the bill, according to news reports–though he has executive discretion on how to implement the legislation.

The measure was strongly backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), who triumphantly heralded the latest sanctions as part of “the strongest set of sanctions to isolate any country in the world during peacetime.” The legislation was introduced by hardline supporters of Israel in Congress, like Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Howard Berman (D-CA).

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) (h/t Paul Mutter) explains the crux of the latest sanctions:

The bill expands sanctions on insurers dealing with Iran’s energy sector; sanctions anyone affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps; expands sanctions on energy and uranium mining activities in Tehran; and freezes the assets of individuals and companies that enable Iran to repress its citizens through the use of technology.

It also reduces the threshold for incurring sanctions from $20 million in annual dealings with Iran’s energy sector to $5 million.

The JTA also notes this important point:

Also, for the first time in actionable legislation, the measure defines the capability of building a nuclear weapon as posing a threat to the United States.

“Capability” is the key word. The term “nuclear weapons capability”–repeated endlessly in the bill’s text–is a fuzzy one.

Commenting on an earlier Iran-related bill, Kucinich said that the term was “a nebulous and undefined term that could include a civilian nuclear program.” In other words, by some readings Iran already has the “capability” to produce a nuclear weapon if it decided to (which it hasn’t). Robert Wright similarly notes in The Atlantic that “the term ‘capability’ is so mushy that Israel could bomb Iran tomorrow and say that it did so because, by its definition of ‘capability,’ Iran was exactly a day away from possessing it!”

AIPAC and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been pressuring the US to adhere closer to their red line, and this is one way to ramp up that pressure. A separate, non-binding resolution that AIPAC pushed around its annual conference was also focused on the word “capability.”

The difference in approach between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations was on display recently when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited Israel. Panetta emphasized that it was US policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, whereas Netanyahu emphasized the “capability” to do so. (See this Jerusalem Post article for more on this.)

And, as Phyllis Bennis noted Wednesday on Mondoweiss, the Romney campaign has “accepted the official position of his host country – Israel – which is that a nuclear capable Iran is the red line.” Romney advisor Dan Senor–whose sister runs AIPAC in Jerusalem–was explicit that Romney’s position was that Israel would be justified in striking Iran if it reached the “capability” to produce a nuclear weapon.

So both Congress and the Romney campaign are marching in lockstep, putting pressure on the Obama administration to adhere to the Israeli “red line” on Iran. And you can expect more pressure: Senator Mark Kirk, the Israel lobby’s go-to guy in Congress, has vowed to introduce more Iran sanctions.

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