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.