The Cable

House goes first with new Iran sanctions bill

Both the House and Senate are preparing new legislation to increase pressure on Iran, but the House fired the opening salvo on Monday with a new bill authored by both heads of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

"U.S. policy towards Iran has offered a lot of bark, but not enough bite.  This new bipartisan legislation would bring to bear the full weight of the U.S. by seeking to close the loopholes in existing energy and financial sanctions laws, while increasing the type and number of sanctions to be imposed," committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) said in a statement unveiling the Iran Threat Reduction Act (ITRA).

The bill is meant to close loopholes that Ros-Lehtinen and others believe the administration is using to avoid enforcement of the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA), which was signed into law by President Barack Obama in July 2010.

"Given the grave nature of the Iranian threat, it is my hope that my colleagues will support further strengthening the bill as it moves through the legislative process and not fall into the trap of enabling the Executive Branch to ignore U.S. law," she said.

To date, only two companies have been sanctioned under provisions in CISADA that were designed to clamp down on Iran's energy sector -- one Iranian state-owned corporation, and one corporation from Belarus. The new bill eliminates some of the waivers available to the president, raises the bar for other waivers, and expands the list of targeted Iranian officials and entities.

Other original co-sponsors are committee ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA), Dan Burton (R-IN), Edward R. Royce (R-CA), Brad Sherman (D-CA), Steve Chabot (R-OH), Gary Ackerman (D-NY), and Ted Deutch (D-FL). 

"We must use every economic tool available to force Iran to end its pursuit of nuclear weapons," Berman said in his own statement. "As we await vigorous enforcement by the Obama Administration under CISADA, we must continually look ahead and examine additional means to pressure Iran, and that is exactly what this new legislation is intended to do." 

Over in the Senate, top lawmakers are also preparing new Iran sanctions legislation, which could be unveiled as early as this month. Like the House bill, the Senate's version will incorporate ideas from a range of individual lawmakers on how to increase pressure on Iran. However, the Senate bill will likely focus on expanding sanctions rather than tightening enforcement of existing sanctions, as the House has done.

The Senate effort is being led by Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Mark Kirk (R-IL), but will likely incorporate ideas from others, such as Robert Casey (D-PA) and Kirstin Gillibrand (D-NY).

"The new legislation for the first time targets Iran's crude oil exports and the dominant role played by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in the development, production, and distribution of Iran's oil," said Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, who helped develop the House bill. "With the introduction of this new legislation, companies now are on notice that ‘buyer beware': If you're buying crude from Iran, you're buying it from the IRGC, and that's bad for business, bad for your reputation and could make you the target of U.S. sanctions."

You can find the bill text here.

The Cable

Was the peace process failure Mitchell’s fault?

Special Envoy George Mitchell resigned at a low point in the effort to achieve peace in the Middle East, but officials and experts argued that the failure cannot be laid solely at his feet.

While President Barack Obama is set to give a major speech next Thursday setting forth U.S. policy in response to the wave of revolutions sweeping the Arab world, he is not expected to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in any depth. There was considerable debate within the administration about whether to link the two issues, but the president ultimately decided not to set forth a new peace process strategy. That decision was perhaps the final sign for Mitchell that his continued service would not be needed.

In fact, Mitchell's departure is the clearest signal that no new peace initiative from the administration is forthcoming.

"There's nothing they can do right now," said former negotiator Aaron David Miller. He added that Mitchell isn't responsible for the current state of the peace process, because the direction of the administration's Middle East policy was always controlled by the White House.

"This was not a George Mitchell problem, this was 80 percent the reality that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians were willing to tough issues and 20 percent the Obama administration, which inflated expectations, wrongfully elevated the settlement issue, and now finds itself with no negotiations no peace process and no strategy," he said.

"To blame Mitchell for an administration that never had an effective strategy is just wrong," said Miller.

In what could be a preview of how Obama will address the peace process next week, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon spoke about the issue Thursday evening at an event hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"[N]o one should take comfort in the status quo," he said. "As we have learned in the Middle East, the status quo is never static. There are demographic and technological clocks that keep ticking. There is a new generation of leaders who will emerge in the region as a result of the changes that are now taking place."

The head of the PLO mission in Washington, Maen Rashid Areikat, told The Cable in an interview that Mitchell did the best he could and remains well regarded, despite the lack of progress. The Palestinian government wants the Obama administration to stay engaged and the window for negotiations was not closed, he said.

"We understand this speech will not focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but we'd like to see a continued commitment by the U.S. to reach a conclusion to the conflict," he said.

But while the administration and the Israeli government have been coordinating closely in recent weeks, U.S.-Palestinian relations have declined due to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's plan to seek diplomatic recognition for a Palestinian state at the United Nations in September, and the announcement that the PA will form a unity government with the Islamist group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States.

Areikat said that the plan to seek recognition at the United Nations was not final, and could be scuttled if negotiations resume. He also said that the unity government would not change its policies regarding the peace process, at least until elections, which are currently scheduled for May 2012.

"The PLO will continue to be in charge of negotiations and political issues and even the future government that will be formed as a caretaker transition government will to continue to implement the policies of the president and will not undertake any new policies," he said.

Inside the administration, Mitchell's role had lessened ever since the administration announced it was abandoning the strategy of focusing on Israeli settlement moratorium extensions in November 2010.

"George's operation had withered and been unattended since then and he really hasn't had a mandate," said Steve Clemons, foreign policy chief at the New America Foundation, who agreed that the Fatah-Hamas deal does render the current process moot.

"They don't have a plan to deal with the unity government. The Hamas deal has caught them unaware so the strategy they put in place won't work," said Clemons.

Mitchell now becomes the latest special envoy, whose ranks include the late Richard Holbrooke, who saw his role overshadowed by more senior officials in the White House.

"They created an empire of envoys," said Miller. "This whole process was managed by the White House and the NSC with the president being the arbiter of what would and would not be."

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