A bill sponsored by Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, to authorize new energy-sector sanctions on Iran overwhelmingly passed the House just now. The vote: 412 members in favor to only 12 opposed, with four voting “present.” Berman’s bill had strong but not unanimous support in the American Jewish community. It doesn’t require President Obama to place the additional sanctions on Iran, but it gives him the option, and the Obama administration is increasing the signals that absent some major affirmative sign from Iran to an offer made in Vienna to process its nuclear fuel outside the country, Obama will seek multilateral sanctions next year.
“I think the actions of Iran and the regime over the last six months are the single biggest vote-getter we got,” Berman said in a post-vote press conference. “A year ago, everyone talked about Iran rising; America’s strategy seemed a fairly isolated one.” But after the June elections fiasco and Green uprising, “Iran is isolated and I think this administration’s strategy is starting to fall into place. … I view this legislation as a component of that strategy.” The administration “didn’t tell me to go ahead, but they also didn’t tell me not to go ahead.” Berman specified that his preference is for a multilateral approach — whether through the United Nations Security Council or otherwise — rather than what he has often called “crippling sanctions.”
Berman said he viewed the bill as a way of getting the administration to rally together an international coalition. The House passage of his legislation “empowers the administration to point out, ‘Here’s a way a lot of people in Congress want to go. We think there’s a better way, but this issue will not go away,’” he said. Sanctioning the importation of “refined petroleum products” would have “the single biggest effect [on] the Iranian economy” but added that he was “always open” to an alternative that would “change [Iranian] behavior, in other words, to stop the enrichment.”
I asked Berman what the effect would be on the Iranian people, as opposed to the regime, of the sanctions his bill authorizes. “I find this distinction interesting,” Berman replied. “The notion that you are going to have effective sanctions that don’t impact on the Iranian people, I don’t understand what that means.” His sanctions would be less harmful than “the financial sanctions developed by the Treasury Department,” he continued. But he derided the idea that the sanctions would harm the Iranian dissident movement. “Here you have courageous people in the street, some of them being executed in the street, … speaking out, these are not people [who say] ‘Oh my God, there’s an effort to weaken the regime that we detest, but that little economic sacrifice that we might be paying, we’re going to turn from opponents of the regime into supporters of the regime.’ I don’t believe that.”
When I pointed out that dissident leaders Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Kerroubi oppose sanctions, Berman replied, “I am aware of their position. I don’t think they distinguish between our sanctions and other sanctions. There are a lot of different reasons why they might have said that.” He didn’t specify what those might be — or why he did not take their positions at face value — but he added, “The Iranian people want us to keep the pressure on the regime.”