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By Barry Rubin

The American media is starting a campaign to promote the story that President Barack Obama will soon sign the toughest anti-Iran sanctions in history when the bill passed by Congress reaches his desk. In fact, the White House has already watered down the original legislation.

Beyond that, a very large number of waivers have been added to the bill by the Democratic-dominated conference committee. This means that President Obama can suspend any portion of the new economic sanctions on Iran at will, sometimes even being given the power to avoid having to do any investigation. He need merely state that implementing any such provision is not in the national interest.

In addition, when the president puts his name on the bill, he may make a Signing Statement in which he could define or further limit the sanctions.

All of this is especially significant because the main problem limiting sanctions’ pressure on Iran in the past was not so much the lack of laws to do so—sanctions have been passed since 1996—but the chief executive’s failure or refusal to implement them.

Why hasn’t this been done and why should we watch closely how Obama handles these matters?

First, it can be argued that the president needs flexibility since he might want to remove sanctions as an incentive for Iran to negotiate or as a concession to Iran for anything it gives.

This makes sense in principle but the problem is that the administration has been too quick to seek engagement with Tehran, too eager to make unilateral concessions, too naïve in interpreting the Iranian regime as moderate, and too timid about getting tough. In other words, it is possible that the administration will take credit for congressional sanctions that it delayed for six months and then not even carry them out in (unrealistic) hope of making some deal with Tehran.

Second, sanctions may be reduced because they damage U.S. business interests and lobbyists complain.

Third, rather than try to enforce sanctions in ways that lead to friction with European allies, the Obama Administration might give them an exemption. This has happened repeatedly in the past. Even more important, it could be a way of avoiding any conflict with Russia and China, even as these two countries undercut the sanctions to a large extent.

Having said all this, it is important to note that the new law would increase the pressure on Iran regarding the financial aspects (making it harder for Iran to borrow money, finance projects, or manage trade), as well as restrictions on refined petroleum exports to Iran. But if, for example, China builds more refineries for Iran, without the U.S. government saying or doing anything, these won’t matter so much.

One provision killed by the administration concerned prohibiting or discouraging countries giving export credits to companies investing or trading with Iran.

Recently, I gave a briefing to staffers in the House of Representatives and pointed out that the U.S. Congress was just about the only government institution that provided some hope regarding U.S. foreign policy. But now the sanctions are going to be in the Executive Branch’s hands. Let’s carefully monitor White House behavior on this issue. 

 
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (PalgraveMacmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; The West and the Middle East (four volumes); and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books.

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