The Obama administration and most of Washington may be focused on Libya or Pakistan, but several offices on Capitol Hill are preparing new sanctions bills to increase pressure on Iran.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) will kick off the slew of new Iran sanctions legislation expected to be introduced in May on Wednesday, when he introduces a new bill to promote human rights and democracy in Iran. He is working on a bipartisan and bicameral basis with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Rep. Robert Dold (R-IL), and Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL). The bill, called the Iran Human Rights and Democracy Promotion Act of 2011, would force the administration to appoint a special representative on human rights and democracy in Iran and impose sanctions on companies that sell or service products that enable the Iranian regime to oppress its people, such as communications spying equipment.
At a press conference scheduled for Wednesday, Kirk will also host a family member of a Baha'i religious leader imprisoned in Iran.
But Kirk's bill is only one piece of the larger puzzle of Iran bills circulating on Capitol Hill right now. Two senior Senate aides told The Cable that the plan is to compile several Iran bills together into one massive, new Iran sanctions bill to be unveiled by the end of May.
"By the end of this month, there's probably going to be a comprehensive bill that deals with Iran on a variety of levels, including proliferation, human rights, and energy," one senior GOP Senate aide said.
A primary focus of that bill will be ways to increase pressure on companies based in other countries that are still doing business with Iran's energy sector.
Many in Congress are increasingly unhappy with the Obama administration for failing to enforce penalties on companies from third-party countries that are still doing business with Iran. The Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA) of 2010 directs the administration to punish these companies. However, only a few have actually been punished -- and they hail from places like Belarus where the administration has little concern for delicate bilateral relations.
The details of the Senate's new comprehensive Iran sanctions bill aren't worked out yet, but there are several pieces of legislation floating around that could be included. For example, Gillibrand has a bill that would introduce criminal penalties against companies that fail to disclose their business ties with Iran.
Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA) introduced a bill last year that would make it harder for Iran to issue energy bonds -- the idea being to make the export of crude oil more costly and difficult. That bill could also reemerge as part of the new Senate comprehensive Iran package.
There's no official leadership for the Senate's new comprehensive bill yet, but the legislators most active on Iran have been Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Kirk. The three wrote a letter March 28 to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on this very issue.
Over in the House, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) could unveil her own version of new sanctions legislation as well. Our sources say that the House is more focused on increasing enforcement of existing sanctions and closing loopholes -- as opposed to introducing new punitive measures -- but nothing is finalized.
But there's one thing both chambers agree on: the need to stop Chinese companies from undermining U.S. sanctions by backfilling the business Iran is losing due to the exit of American and European countries.
"There's just no doubt that China is going to be a big focus of our bill," the Senate aide said.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.