Obama Delays Iranian Sanctions Bill

October 12th, 2009 at 10:42 pm | 19 Comments |

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Legislators are growing increasingly frustrated with President Barack Obama’s seeming unwillingness to pull the trigger on an Iran sanctions package that is already locked and loaded.  The American public should be frustrated, too.

The Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (IRPSA), if enacted, would put the squeeze on foreign oil companies that currently help the Mullahs refine petroleum, as well as the insurance companies that underwrite this trade.   If the sanctions work, they could stem the flow of 30 to 40 percent of Iranian oil, since the Mullahs don’t actually have sufficient refining capacity to meet their domestic needs.  In short, IRPSA could deal a fiscal body blow to Iran and destabilize the regime, as a means to derail its nuclear ambitions.

So, why are Democrats like Senators Chuck Schumer (NY) and Chris Dodd (CT) unhappy?  The same reason why Republicans are.

Congress rolled out the initiative back in April that mirrored candidate Obama’s call for gasoline sanctions during the 2008 presidential campaign.   Fast forward six months, and it’s still stuck on the Hill, despite the fact that it has an astounding 327 co-sponsors in the House (HR 2475) and 75 co-sponsors in the Senate (S 908).  That’s more than three-quarters of Congress.

While that should easily be enough to get IRPSA into law, the administration has signaled to lawmakers that it needs more time. At a recent hearing of the Senate Banking Committee, Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey testified that he was still working on a “comprehensive” plan that “takes into account Iran’s potential vulnerabilities and those activities that have the greatest influence on Iran’s decision makers.”

Levey has worked tirelessly on Iran since assuming his post in 2004.  He knows exactly what the sanctions package would look like. The problem, according to congressional staffers and think tankers who have been following the legislation, is that Obama appears ambivalent – caught somewhere between his call for dialogue and insisting that an Iranian nuclear weapon is “unacceptable.”

The reason for the president’s ambivalence is clear. Gasoline sanctions only have the potential to cause a spike in Iran’s gasoline imports, and possibly weaken the regime. Even if IRPSA hits Iran in the pocketbook, as former Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton notes, the Mullahs are not likely to change course.  If he’s right, the enforcement and subsequent failure of sanctions would only reinforce the notion that military intervention may be the only viable option left.

Obama seems eager to postpone reaching this excruciating conclusion.

Leadership, however, is about making those tough choices.  The President must give sanctions enough time to work – or fail.  Neglecting to do so will only limit U.S. options as Tehran draws ever closer to its dangerous aims.

Recent Posts by Jonathan Schanzer

19 Comments so far ↓

  • greg_barton

    Hey, if “successful” health care reform requires 80 Senate votes, why not this?

  • SFTor1

    How about talking to those guys first? Too radical an idea?

    I believe the GOP and its adherents will be better off when every foreign policy issue isn’t turned into a pissing match.

    Please entertain the idea, at least for a moment.

  • balconesfault

    Probably not too radical to think that the Obama Admin is trying to work out exactly what the strategy is going to be in Afghanistan before committing on Iran.

    I don’t think that people fully come to grips with the danger that our strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan – have our US troops working closely with local forces while fighting terrorists and the Taliban – put our troops in.


    Our attack on Afghanistan was clearly warranted – a direct response to an attack against America.

    Our attack on Iraq was unwarranted, but justified by some as an intervention to bring freedom and rights to the Iraqis dominated for decades by Saddam.

    A US attack on Iranian facilities, likely killing many Iranian civilians as well as military, simply to keep Iran from having a nuke while everyone in the Middle East knows Israel already has one? That may be the tipping point to ensure that no US troop is safe in the presence of any armed Muslim – period. And as for US contractors abroad …

  • SFTor1

    The Republican Party could do itself a massive favor by spearheading an initiative to get the U.S. out of Afghanistan, and now. The Administration is very likely to be all for it, at least if it has half a brain.

    There is absolutely nothing to be gained by being there. There is no nation to build, there is no Al-Qaeda to kill. There is no pipeline to be had. There is only a civil war, and we are on the wrong side of it no matter whose side we choose. It is an absurd war, seen from a sober evaluation of our interests.

    How about the Taliban? We let that genie out of the bottle, and we don’t have the power to put them back by military force. Only the people in the region can, although it will not be immediate nor necessarily done according to our wishes.

    If we did leave, it might just be possible that we could be heard on non-proliferation, inside and outside of Iran. As we stand we are just another colonist, discredited by our own actions, and ready to face our Maiwand sooner than later.

  • sinz54

    sftor1: There is absolutely nothing to be gained by being there. There is no nation to build, there is no Al-Qaeda to kill.
    The problem is making sure that al-Qaeda won’t return to a failed state (or region) led by the Taliban. They had a good working relationship before, what’s going to stop them from having it again?

    It’s possible the U.S. could buy off the Taliban and turn them away from al-Qaeda. Then again, they’re religious fanatics, and they may not be interested in betraying their Islamism for thirty pieces of silver.

  • balconesfault

    They had a good working relationship before, what’s going to stop them from having it again?

    How about the Taliban knowing that if Al Qaeda ever uses their country as a base to launch attacks again – the US will come kick their asses again?

    The Talibani and Al Qaeda may both be Islamic – but they are very different. Al Qaeda is fundamentally jihadist and international, concerned with Islam and the Middle East, but exporting the fight globally.

    The Taliban has always been inward looking, almost to the point of obsession … and they actually were focussed on governance, such as it was. For example, the deal that the Clinton and then the Bush Administration tried to broker with the Taliban to allow a Unocal pipeline to cross the country to take nat gas to the Enron plant in India fell through in part because the Taliban wanted interconnects in Afghanistan … while Unocal only wanted a pass through line – that’s governance. The Taliban took money from the US to support their poppy eradication program – that’s governance.

    And the Taliban took money from Bin Laden to allow Al Qaeda to run training camps – that’s governance, although it turned out to be very stupid governance, since it ended up getting their country and government destroyed. Personally, I think they would have learned the lesson had we just conducted 1 year worth of operations – everything we could do to catch or not catch Bin Laden – and then left Afghanistan with the warning that we’d be back if it ever happened again. And yeah, if the US had taken the money we’ve spent on Afghanistan in the ensuing 8 years and stretched it out for 50 years as payments for the Taliban to keep international terrorists from basing in their country, we’d be way ahead of the game right now.

  • sinz54

    balconesfault: How about the Taliban knowing that if Al Qaeda ever uses their country as a base to launch attacks again – the US will come kick their asses again?
    It’s clear by now that Obama doesn’t kick asses. He talks and talks and talks. So as long as Obama is in the White House, the Taliban have nothing to fear from a return of U.S. military force. (During the Democratic presidential debates, one questioner asked what each would do in the event of another attack on the U.S. Hillary said she would consider military retaliation. Obama said he would call in the first responders–and said absolutely nothing about possible retaliation.)

    There’s also the fact that if the Taliban return to power, all those who flourished under the U.S.-backed regime these last 8 years are likely to be slaughtered. This includes every woman and girl who learned how to read and write over these last 8 years, and every woman who has been holding down a real job. Even left-wing groups, like Code Pink, are worried about this. The Taliban have a track record of despising any vestige of what they consider un-Islamic culture. And that specifically includes women’s rights.

    The spectacle of mass beatings and killings of women televised to the whole world via al-Jazeera, while Obama just gives more speeches, would be a disastrous blow to U.S. prestige.

    So it’s not enough to just throw up our hands and leave. Who will ever be on our side again if they see us allow a mass slaughter like that. I want the U.S. out of that place, but I want to make sure that we leave behind some sort of coalition regime of national reconciliation–not an Islamist bloodbath.

    And that means that the most fanatical of the Taliban elements, the ones who used to organize those mass beatings of women, can never be allowed to return to power in the 21st century.

  • ottovbvs

    It’s called the presidential prerogative to conduct foreign policy……Dick Cheney will explain it to you.

    sinz54 // Oct 13, 2009 at 10:20 am
    “It’s clear by now that Obama doesn’t kick asses. ”

    …….”Kicking asses” has given us two politico/military shambles that have so far cost over 5000 American lives, tens of thousands of Iraqi/Afhani lives and the thick end of a trillion bucks……talk is much cheaper…….having got the last eight years in Afghanistan and Iraq completely wrong the “experts” from the right and their apologists like Sinz (most of whom are sitting comfortably in armchairs in front of keyboards) are now telling us we need to kick some more ass in Afghan…..Laughable.

  • balconesfault

    It’s clear by now that Obama doesn’t kick asses.

    Yadda yadda yadda. How many US troops were in Afghanistan when Obama took office … and how many are there now? What do you think they’re doing … fixing the plumbing?

    And I’ve read about quite a few predator drone strikes against Al Qaeda targets in the last few months. Maybe Obama has his own Ollie North in the basement directing operations without Obama’s knowledge?

    This meme is getting really old, and really stupid. Unwillingness to fight stupid fights is not the same as unwillingness to fight. Give me a well disciplined boxer over a barroom brawler anytime.

  • balconesfault

    Even left-wing groups, like Code Pink, are worried about this.

    Weird thing is the only time I hear Code Pink ever mentioned, it’s here.

    Do you really believe that once you get outside of Kabul, those “rights” exist anyway?

    And how many troops are you willing to see die so that Afghani women can read? I’m up for Afganis fighting and dying for their own rights … and for individual Americans who feel really, really strong about it to form their own Lincoln Brigade and go over there and fight the good fight.

    “Prestige” of this sort is an illusion.

  • SFTor1

    It turns out that progress for women in Afghanistan is illusory. There are a few female members of Congress, judges, and so on. Status for women in general is the same as under the Taliban.

    The “woman’s safety” argument is understandable. As with so many other things with the Afghanistan War, it has no basis in reality.

    Russia had 500,000 forces in Afghanistan, and left humiliated. Do we really need to share the experience?

  • DFL

    Although Mr. Schanzer suggests that the American people ought to be “frustrated” by President Obama’s failure to enact sanctions on Iran, I find not one American in a hundred cares one wit about Iran. Iran is halfway around the globe, a source of oil and nothing more. The Congressional vote for sanctions is an easy and aimless vote perpetrated by a group of men more gifted at shaking down contributors and getting grandma her social security check than they are at strategic thinking and balancing budgets.

  • SpartacusIsNotDead

    Sinz wrote: “It’s clear by now that Obama doesn’t kick asses.”

    I think Hillary Clinton and John McCain would disagree.

    Also, whose ass should he have kicked by now?

  • SpartacusIsNotDead

    Sinz wrote: “So as long as Obama is in the White House, the Taliban have nothing to fear from a return of U.S. military force.”

    What mythical Commander-In-Chief have you confured in your little head that kicks ass and takes names all over the world? Was it Ronald Reagan who pulled out of Beirut without punishing those responsible for killing over 200 American soldiers, or who left Ghadafi in power so that some of his own people could blow up an airplane, killing hundreds of innocent people? Maybe its George H.W. Bush who left Saddam in power. Is it George W. Bush who started two wars that have bankrupted the country without achieving any of their primary purposes?

    You speak as a fool.

  • SFTor1

    Sounds like it’s time to realize that all this saber-rattling gets us nowhere.

    We have grown accustomed to U.S. military power being unsheathed at the slightest occasion. It is time to end this practice.

  • DFL

    We should learn from Rome, at least the Western Empire. The reasons for Rome’s collapse were many, one of them being imperial overstretch. Why can’t the neo-conservatives learn from history?

  • sinz54


    Hillary, if she were President, wouldn’t hesitate to use military force. She’s one tough cookie. That’s the thing about women in power: They enjoy wielding power, since women were denied it for so long. (Eva Peron, Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, Benezir Bhutto, etc.)

    Obama wouldn’t use military force in retaliation, even if terrorists blew up the Sears Tower in Chicago and killed another couple thousand Americans. Obama is all brain, no guts, and no balls. He’s proving that every day.

  • ottovbvs

    sinz54 // Oct 14, 2009 at 12:50 pm

    …..Sinz…….You’re going to have to get over your Obama Derangement Syndrome ……..You’ve got it bad……He’s going to around for the next 7 years+

  • SpartacusIsNotDead


    Regarding your argument about Obama’s reluctance to use military power, I again ask whose ass he should have kicked by now? By claiming he’s all brains and no guts, you seem to have mistaken a lack of bluster for a lack of toughness.