With Congress moving inexorably toward passage of new US sanctions on Iran, the Obama administration is changing its tack: In place of an earlier desire to stall passage while it sought international sanctions, the administration is now seeking to modify measures Congress is considering that could make international support for UN sanctions more remote.
The switch reflects the differences in momentum for sanctions in the two arenas the administration is working with. While Congress continues its march toward new US sanctions against Iran, the brakes are being applied internationally as more countries cast doubt on the prospects of UN sanctions.
"It's only 3 o'clock, and I've already had about 15 proposals bounced off me for more sanctions on Iran," said Kenneth Katzman, an expert in US sanctions on Iran for the Congressional Research Service. He spoke at a Tuesday afternoon discussion at the Atlantic Council in Washington on prospects for diplomacy with Tehran.
The Obama administration has been hoping to at least slow momentum in Congress for new American sanctions while it works with the UN Security Council to pass a new round of international sanctions – the route it believes has a better chance of influencing Tehran's pursuit of its nuclear ambitions.
But last week, Brazil, which holds one of the council's revolving seats, told Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that it opposes a new round of sanctions.
In the meantime, both houses of Congress have passed legislation that would target Iran's gasoline imports by hitting the companies that sell the gasoline to Tehran. The broader Senate legislation would also seek to target companies helping Tehran renovate its gasoline refineries.
Despite Iran's oil wealth, the country's decrepit refineries are incapable of filling domestic demand for gasoline.
The administration is working with Congress to try to modify the legislation or include exemptions for US allies, according to some specialists in sanctions with close knowledge of the legislative process.
Reflecting another White House shift – this one in more overt support of Iran's opposition movement that emerged after the June 12 presidential elections – the administration is also supporting an effort to curtail the Iranian regime's access to software and equipment designed to permit limiting or closing down of public Internet access.
"The administration realized there is the sentiment in Congress to pass this" legislation, says Mr. Katzman, "so they have chosen to modify it rather than to try to stop a very heavy train that is moving."
Flynt Leverett, an Iran expert at the New America Foundation in Washington, says there is "good reason" the US has never actually imposed measures against the foreign companies that might be subject to existing US sanctions on Iran. The US would immediately be hauled before the World Trade Organization, he says, and would lose.
As a result, he says, unilateral US sanctions are "a joke" and have only served to discourage US and European companies from doing business in Iran – thus leaving the field to Chinese, Russian, and other non-Western companies.
Additional international sanctions are unlikely to have any more impact on Iran's behavior, Mr. Leverett says. "I don't think sanctions limit [Iran's] options all that much."
George Perkovich, director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says international sanctions at least can work to "punish" the regime and remind it that "there is a cost for your behavior."
But he worries that unilateral US gasoline sanctions will only lead to estrangement between the West and the Iranian people. Recalling how the Arab countries' oil embargo in the early 1970s fed US public rancor towards Arabs, he says he can't picture Iranians waiting in long lines for gasoline saying, "The Americans are right, we need to change our government."