Yesterday, the House passed the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, sponsored by Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), which imposes sanctions on companies that sell refined petroleum to Iran or support Iran's refining sector.
This comes as President Obama's self-imposed year-end deadline for progress with Iran approaches with little to show for the administration's repeated efforts to engage Tehran. The administration's rhetoric has shifted in recent weeks, with the president citing the need for sanctions to "exact a real price."
Talking tough on Iran is a nice change from an administration that avoided doing so for months in an effort to placate the mullahs. But talk alone is not going to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
The question is how far the administration is willing to go on sanctions outside of the United Nations Security Council. This is important because it is not clear that China and Russia are willing to move quickly to support a new Security Council resolution. Chinese officials couldn't find time in their schedules to attend a P5+1 meeting before the end of the year. Instead, they literally agreed to phone it in and participate in a conference call instead. Even if the Security Council passes a new round of sanctions, the sausage making process at the United Nations has traditionally gutted the strong draft resolutions put forward by the U.S. government, resulting in weak resolutions which few bother to implement.
So, given the uncertain prospects at the United Nations, it is somewhat surprising that the administration is not using the Iran sanctions legislation moving through Congress as a lever to influence the Russians, Chinese, and Europeans. Instead, the administration is asking the Senate to significantly modify its version of the legislation (sponsored by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.). Even though the legislation was hotlined last week, Sen. Kerry has held it up at the administration's request.
The administration wants senators to add an exemption for countries that the administration designates as "cooperating" in the international effort to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. In reality, this guts the legislation because the State Department never met a country it didn't consider cooperating in cases such as this. This administration's effort comes even though the Senate bill includes the same divestment legislation that a certain senator from Illinois named Barack Obama introduced with Sen. Brownback (R-Kans.) in 2007.
It is unlikely that either the House or the Senate versions is a silver bullet -- questions remain about the impact on the regime even if the current legislation passed and was promptly implemented by the administration. But the administration's efforts to gut the legislation and its sensitivity about the supposedly robust international coalition they like to tout as a product of their willingness to talk to Tehran raises questions about how serious they and their "partners" are about stopping Iran's progress toward a nuclear weapon.