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(photo credit: AP)
The US House of Representatives moved forward on limited Iran sanctions legislation this week in approving the foreign aid budget, despite White House opposition to expanded sanctions that it worries could threaten its policy of engagement.
The measure was part of a $48.8 billion foreign appropriations bill that passed 318-106 late Thursday. While the Senate version - likely to be approved later this month - doesn't contain the Iran sanctions language, the House vote still gives a boost in entering the compromise version which the full Congress will ultimately need to vote on, expected some time this fall.
The House bill also includes $2.22b. in military aid to Israel, which comes on top of the $555 million allocated earlier this year, as part of the 10-year agreement governing US assistance to Israel.
The Palestinians are slated to receive $400.4m. in economic aid, plus $100m. for US Lt.-Gen. Keith Dayton's program of training and reforming the Palestinian Authority's security forces.
Egypt is due to get $1.29b., on top of the $260m. already allocated this year, and Jordan would receive $513m., in addition to the forward funding of $150m. it already has gotten.
While the House has held off on legislation sponsored earlier this year by Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman, a Democrat from California, which would broadly sanction foreign companies that support Iran's petroleum industry, the foreign aid bill amendment the House approved on Thursday would cut off US export credits to foreign companies that help to provide gasoline to the Islamic republic.
"A political decision - really a diplomatic decision - has been made not to move forward with the Berman bill, but that doesn't mean Congress feels the activities that are targeted by the Berman bill are okay," explained a House aide, who noted that Berman and other key legislators agree with the White House's perspective that harsh sanctions could jeopardize the possibility of engagement with Teheran because they would send a strongly adversarial signal. The idea with Berman's bill is that the Iranian leadership should have an idea of what awaits them should engagement fail, at which point it would be advanced in Congress.
Still, the aide said, "It's very important that we continue to take these steps, target these companies, let them know that Congress does mean business, and that Congress is going to continue to nibble at the edges and when it comes time for the Berman bill to move forward, it's going to sting."
In keeping with that message, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-California), who sponsored the legislation along with Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Illinois), joined Rep. Dan Burton (R-Indiana) late last month in sending a letter to Royal Dutch Shell taking the massive multinational energy company to task for its dealings with Iran and using the threat of the broader sanctions to pressure the company to rethink its business practices, which they say include gasoline sales to Iran.
The letter pointed out that should the Berman legislation go through, Shell would be at risk of sanctions, and that the sanctions could lead to US assets being frozen, prohibitions on transactions utilizing dollars, and, "in general, Royal Dutch Shell could potentially be barred from carrying out any activity in the United States."
The letter also refers to a recent Shell shareholders meeting in which questions were asked about the country's Iran activities. "It is disturbing to some of us in the US Congress that Shell executives are refusing to provide answers to legitimate shareholders with the information they need to make informed investment decisions," the lawmakers wrote.
In what some members of Congress see as a troubling sign of Shell's actions, the company's own 2009 annual report notes that "for Iran, US law sets a limit of $20m. in any 12-month period on certain investments knowingly made in that country... While Shell did not exceed the limit on investments in Iran in 2008, we have exceeded it in the past and may exceed the US-imposed investment limits in Iran in the future."
Though the members of Congress have yet to receive a response from Shell, according to their offices, a company spokesman told The Jerusalem Post in response to a query that "we are aware of the letter and its contents."
Of the sanctions legislation, he said, "This remains proposed legislation at this time. We maintain close dialogue with a range of governments and interested parties."
In terms of the implications, should the measure be adopted, the Shell spokesman replied that he could not speculate, "but we seek to comply with any legislation relevant to our global business operations."
Already the letter has had some political impact, as it was raised in a rare parliamentary session in the Netherlands discussing possible sanctions.
While the Berman letter is in abeyance, backers of the Sherman-Kirk measure say they were able to get that passed by the House because of the particularly "egregious" situation in which US assistance - in the form of the export credits - was helping companies supply Iran.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee strongly backed the House bill.
"AIPAC strongly applauds the House for passing the annual foreign aid bill," AIPAC President David Victor said in a statement. "This year's package holds heightened significance with the United States, the region and Israel facing renewed challenges from Iran's drive to dominate the Middle East, acquire nuclear weapons and its support for Islamic terrorist movements."
But not all interest groups were pleased with the legislation.
Patrick Disney, acting legislative director for the National Iranian American Council, said the organization supports the Obama administration's approach and is concerned about the enactment of new sanctions.
"Members of Congress and government wanting to rush to the aid of the Iranian people could do more harm than good," he said, warning that such moves could help bolster Teheran's charges that the US is behind the recent demonstrations and that therefore they must be stamped out.
He added, "People are talking about finding other ways to pressure the government, but these sanctions bills are very blunt instruments that target the whole of Iranian society rather than just the government."
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama has chosen Glyn Davis, a career diplomat, to be US ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency headquartered in Vienna, the White House said Friday.
The top two issues facing Davis are expected to be the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea.
Davis served until last month as principal deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. His nomination requires confirmation by the US Senate.
Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.