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Middle East: U.S. Congress To Extend Sanctions On Iran, Libya

  • Andrew Tully

The Iran-Libya Sanctions Act of 1996 expires in two months. The U.S. Congress is poised to extend it for another five years. But there are reports that President George W. Bush may want to have a shorter extension so that he can explore the possibility of reform in Iran, and perhaps even improved relations. RFE/RL senior correspondent Andrew F. Tully looks at the issue.

Washington, 8 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- It is virtually certain that the U.S. Congress will pass legislation this summer that would create a five-year extension of the sanctions against foreign energy companies that do business with Iran and Libya.

The Iran-Libya Sanctions Act of 1996 is meant to bring economic pressure on the two nations by discouraging foreign businesses from investing in them. It gives America's president the authority to reduce or even forbid imports of goods from countries whose companies invest in Iran and Libya.

A separate law forbids U.S. companies to do business with the two countries.

On 6 June, Republican Congressman Benjamin Gilman of New York announced that there were 218 co-sponsors of the extension in the House of Representatives -- a majority of its 435 seats. And on 7 June, Republican Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon announced that 74 of the Senate's 100 members are co-sponsors of a similar bill.

Debate on the measures in both houses of Congress begins soon, but with so many co-sponsors from both major U.S. political parties, the bill is likely to meet little resistance in Congress.

In the meantime, however, according to some news reports, President George W. Bush would prefer a shorter extension of the law -- an extension of one or two years. According to these accounts, this would give him the flexibility to explore reform in Iran.

A supporter of the extension, Senator Charles Schumer (Democrat-New York), was asked about these reports at a Washington news conference on 7 June, and about the argument that ending the sanctions altogether would encourage reform in Iran and perhaps even Libya. Schumer scoffed at the idea.

"If these nations are serious about entering the community of nations and seeing their economies benefit from global integration, they must change their behavior first."

At the same news briefing, Smith noted that Iran is, according the U.S. State Department, the chief sponsor of terrorism in the world -- spending $100 million a year to support Middle Eastern militant groups like Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and Hamas. Besides, he said, Tehran is helping to proliferate weapons of mass destruction by providing special fuels and missile-guidance systems to states hostile to the West.

And Smith noted that Libya has yet to take responsibility for the downing of Pan American Flight 103, an American jetliner that was destroyed by a bomb during a flight over Scotland in December 1988. All 259 people on board the plane were killed.

Schumer said the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act -- known by the acronym ILSA -- is a potent weapon in the fight against terrorism. "ILSA's been very effective. It's deterred foreign investment in Iran's oil fields. While they're desperate to increase [investment], of the 55 projects that Iran sought for foreign investment, only six have been funded. Not a single one has been completed. And that's what ILSA's about: limiting the ability of Iran and Libya to reap oil profits that can be spent either funding terrorism or weapons of mass destruction."

But Edward Atkeson, a private analyst in international affairs, disagrees. Foreign policy is, under the U.S. Constitution, the province of the president, according to Atkeson, a senior associate of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an independent policy institute in Washington.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Atkeson conceded that members of Congress are under pressure by their constituents to take stands like the one involving Iran and Libya. Therefore they tend to be more "conservative," as he put it, than presidents about such issues. He defined "conservative" this way:

"Less ready to come to grips with the real issues, less ready to make any kind of concessions. It's just a fact in our political spectrum."

However, if the president presented solid evidence that either Iran or Libya was changing its behavior, he says, then members of Congress would support efforts to ease or even lift sanctions.

Another analyst supported Congress' strict approach. He is James Phillips, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, an independent Washington think tank. Phillips told RFE/RL that it is important not to ease any economic pressure -- particularly pressure against Iran -- until Iran's behavior changes. Otherwise, he says, the West would be succumbing to the men he calls the "hard-liners" -- Iran's unyielding religious leaders.

"The hard-liners have argued that Iran can literally get away with murder, it can support terrorism, it can export Islamic revolution, and the West will still come and do business and invest in Iran's oil industries and help them overcome their festering economic problems."

In addition, Phillips says, short extensions would give the impression that America is more hostile to Iran and Libya than it may really be because Congress would be voting to extend the sanctions so frequently. This might tend to discourage progress by even the most sincere reformer in Tehran.

So far, Bush's vice president, Dick Cheney, has said the administration -- which has been in office for just over four months -- is reviewing various U.S. sanctions regimes. But he has not specifically cited the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act as one that it may want to change. And despite the news reports, Bush himself has not outlined his own stand on the sanctions. With Congress ready to debate the extension on sanctions involving Iran and Libya, he is certain to announce them soon.