Iran sanctions legislation cleared a major hurdle late Tuesday, as the US House of Representatives approved a measure aiming to prevent Iranian gasoline imports.
The measure, which still faces several other procedural steps, aims to ratchet up pressure on Iran to stop its pursuit of nuclear capabilities. To that end, it would close US markets to foreign companies that export refined petroleum to Iran or help Teheran develop that capacity, as well as publicize lists of international companies doing business with certain Iranian elements.
But the bill's sponsor stressed the legislation should help the Obama administration pursue the diplomatic track with Iran and wouldn't derail the ultimate goal of multilateral sanctions, saying there was still time for international sanctions to be imposed before Congress's unilateral measure became law.
"They support that strategy, that we want to
empower them, and part of empowering is helping the administration to talk to other countries about what might happen if we don't act together," said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman of the White House.
However, he also noted some apparent ambivalence on the part of the latter: "The administration didn't say go ahead, but they also didn't tell me not to go ahead."
The White House did not respond to a query from The Jerusalem Post about its stance, but a letter from the State Department's No. 2 official to the Senate, which is considering a different Iran sanctions bill, pointed to several concerns the administration had.
"I am concerned that this legislation, in its current form, might weaken rather than strengthen international unity and support for our efforts," James Steinberg, deputy secretary of state, wrote to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry. "I hope that consideration of this bill could be delayed to the new year so as not to undermine the administration's diplomacy at this critical juncture."
Steinberg did, however, emphasize that "we share Congress's concerns on Iran and its nuclear program, and the need to take decisive action."
During his floor speech, Berman said he would be willing to consider some of the changes the administration would like to see in the bill, including an exemption for countries that are actively involved in sanctions efforts, so that they wouldn't be alienated from multilateral efforts.
Still, the delay in the Senate vote on its sanctions bill and the many differences between the two versions - even if the administration's concerns are addressed - means final passage of the bill would be at least weeks if not months off.
Berman, though, stressed that the key issue wasn't how soon unilateral sanctions were passed by Congress.
"The big question is how soon will the international community conclude that without rigorous sanctions, the diplomatic approach gets nowhere," he said in response to a question from the Post following the vote.
He explained that movement on the bill would depend significantly on what happened in other areas, particularly the UN Security Council, which is expected to take up the issue at the beginning of the year. Giving the Security Council time to work first would likely push back congressional movement toward final passage until March.
Still, a wide spectrum of Jewish groups who have been pressing for further sanctions welcomed Tuesday's vote. Among them were the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and B'nai B'rith.
In addition, the progressive lobby J Street, which originally opposed moving ahead with the measure, ended up backing the vote on the grounds that the US administration had had time to pursue diplomacy first.
Though not all Jewish progressive groups agreed - Americans for Peace Now opposed the measure as counterproductive - several members of Congress on the left side of the spectrum who had expressed some reservations on the issue joined in the vote, including Democrat Donna Edwards of Maryland.
"I rise today disappointed I am here to support the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act," said Edwards in an acknowledgement of her previous positions.
"I am disappointed because it is the extraordinary lack of cooperation and duplicity on the part of the leadership in Iran that brings us to this point," she explained. "Though I share many of the concerns expressed by the opposition, like many, I was hopeful at the beginning of this year and this new president and administration that we would approach Iran differently and that the leaders in Iran would respond likewise. Sadly, the response of the Iranian leadership, particularly following their flawed elections, has been anything but forthcoming and cooperative."
Overall, there was widespread bipartisan support, with Democrats and Republicans joining together to extol the bill's merits, in contrast to a handful of dissenters, including Democrat Dennis Kucinich and Republican Ron Paul.
Among the heavyweights lining up to support the bill were House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Minority Whip Eric Cantor.
"All members of Congress, regardless of party, agree: A nuclear Iran is simply unacceptable. It is a threat to the region, to the United States, and to the world," Pelosi said in backing the bill Tuesday.
"Israel is close, and this development of a
weapon of mass destruction is a threat to the region. But the development of a weapon of mass destruction any place in the world is a threat to the entire world, and it is not in the national security interest of the United States," she added. "So while Israel may bear the brunt or be the closest target or target of words - hopefully not anything else - and they have carried this fight, it's not just their fight. The fight is all of ours."