WASHINGTON – A top Democratic member of Congress chastised the Obama
administration Thursday for deploying sanctions against Iran in a way that was
merely “symbolic” and could signal weakness to Tehran.
Earlier this week,
the State Department singled out the Belarusian energy company Belarusneft, only
the second time a US administration has imposed sanctions on a foreign company
doing business with Iran.
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The first time was late last year against the
Swiss-based, Iranian-owned energy company NICO.
“We have once again
imposed sanctions on a company that doesn’t do any business in the US, so the
sanction has no more than symbolic impact,” charged Rep. Howard Berman, ranking
member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, at the opening of a hearing with
outgoing Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg.
“When we do that, I’m
afraid we’re sending Iran a signal more of weakness than of strength, and we’re
having no impact on their economy,” Berman argued. “Such impact is the very
point of sanctions.”
Berman added that during a time of turmoil in the
Middle East, it was crucially important to “keep our eye on the Iranian nuclear
ball at all times,” and welcomed the designation in that light.
Thursday, the US Treasury sanctioned three vessels involved in illicit shipments
House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
backed Berman’s comments and issued a statement herself after the Belarusneft
designation, saying that while the move was positive, “the bottom line is that
the State Department has not yet acted to fully implement and enforce our Iran
Ros-Lehtinen noted that no Russian or Chinese companies
had been sanctioned, urging that “in addition to going after the low-hanging
fruit like Belarusneft, the State Department must impose sanctions against
energy giants that continue to do business with Iran.
That’s the only way
that our sanctions will have the force to compel the Iranian regime to stop
policies and programs that threaten the United States.”
week, three senators sent a letter to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, similarly arguing the need for “full
compliance” with the sanctions imposed by Congress on foreign companies doing
certain kinds of business with Iran.
“This latest announcement of
sanctions suggests to some in Congress that the administration is not really
that serious about enforcing sanctions on Iran after all,” explained Foundation
for Defense of Democracy experts Mark Dubowitz and Laura Grossman in the Weekly
Standard. “The Obama administration made the correct decision earlier this week
to impose sanctions on Belarusneft.... But it’s small beer – Belarusneft
is hardly a major player in Iran’s energy industry.”
Steinberg did not
address the criticism in Thursday’s hearing, which was almost entirely devoted
to US policy on Libya.
But in announcing the designation Tuesday, State
Department spokesman Mark Toner contended that the sanctions would affect the
company’s ability to function internationally.
“They limit the company’s
ability to access the US market, and even if they don’t have any US commercial
activities at present, they’ll limit their options to operate in the US in the
future,” he said, adding that the measure “sends a message to our partners in
Europe as well that this is a company that we’ve decided to sanction, and I’m
sure they have access or would seek access into European markets.”
Thursday’s hearing, Steinberg was also challenged on whether the US actions
against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi were helping clear a path there for
al-Qaida, the Muslim Brotherhood or others, contrary to US interests.
US has acknowledged that it is not fully certain of the composition of the rebel
group seeking Gaddafi’s ouster, and reports of al- Qaida elements in Libya have
“We have to be attentive. We have to be alert. We know that
al-Qaida has had a presence in Libya in the past, and we want to make sure it
doesn’t reestablish there. But what we’ve seen so far is that this is not a
significant factor,” Steinberg said.
He maintained that the Libyan
opposition was “not looking to al-Qaida; they’ve rejected al-Qaida.”
fact, he said that Islamist groups were on the defensive because it was
“democratic forces” that have been toppling dictators.
“They might want
to try to claim this because they’re behind curve on this, and I think they’re
trying to catch up because they don’t have the support,” he said of extremist
groups. “They’re afraid that it’s moving in a direction that’s against them. In
fact, it’s our values, our principles that are on the ascendancy.”