June 24, 2010

Congress Passes Sweeping Sanctions Against Iran

Washington, DC – The House and Senate voted Thursday to

impose sweeping new sanctions against Iran, sending the legislation to the President’s desk for approval. Proponents have called the legislation the “toughest Iran sanctions ever proposed,” while critics argue it will do nothing to halt the Iranian nuclear program and that Congress should have eased sanctions that punish innocent Iranians.

The bill’s supporters have made it clear that their primary intention is to punish Iran’s nuclear activities, though human rights concerns have been added as a secondary consideration.

The Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 was approved unanimously, 99-0, in the Senate and by a vote of 408-8 in the House, with one Present vote. The bill is a dramatic expansion of current US sanctions on Iran, focusing extensively on imposing sanctions on foreign companies that export refined petroleum to Iran or invest in Iran’s energy sector with the goal of destabilizing Iran’s economy.

The bill also expands the existing US trade embargo on Iranian goods and reverses a goodwill gesture by the Clinton Administration in 2000 that had allowed Iranian rugs, pistachios, caviar, and dried fruit to be brought into the US. These goods, which accounted for $62,500,000 in trade in 2009, according the IMF, are now once again banned in the U.S.

In codifying the embargo on Iran, the sanctions bill makes it substantially more difficult for the President to lift sanctions on Iran in the future.

The legislation also codifies the prohibition on exporting products to Iran, though it does provide for certain exceptions. The legislation includes a special exception for Internet communications technology, including hardware, software and other technology necessary to help Iranians access the Internet — though it remained silent about anti-censorship and anti-surveillance tools. While NIAC strongly opposed the overall sanctions bill, NIAC actively worked to ensure that communications software and anti-censorship tools to be exported to the people of Iran.

“Crippling” Sanctions

A key component of the legislation is to impose severe sanctions on companies that export refined petroleum to Iran, since Iran is unable to refine enough of its oil to meet its demand for gasoline. The legislation effectively bars companies that provide Iran with refined petroleum from doing business in the United States — though the President has the option of waiving these sanctions on a case-by-case basis. Many Members of Congress wanted to eliminate the President’s flexibility to waive certain sanctions, but ultimately the President’s flexibility was retained on a more limited basis.

The bill expands the scope of Iran sanctions to include insurance, financing, and shipping companies that contribute to the development of Iran’s energy sector. It also strengthens measures to prevent products from being sent from the US to Iran through a third country.

The bill also authorizes state and local governments to divest their assets from international companies that invest in Iran.

Punishing Human Rights Abusers

In addition to the economic sanctions aimed at Iran’s society as a whole, the final version of the legislation includes measures targeting Iran’s human rights abusers specifically, many of which were first called for and strongly supported by NIAC as part of the Stand With the Iranian People Act (H.R.4303).

The final bill included two provisions of the Stand With the Iranian People Act, imposing travel restrictions on Iranian human rights abusers and barring federal contracts for companies that provide Iran’s government with repressive technology.

The bill also recognized that “it is in the national interest of the United States” to allow American humanitarian and human right NGOs to work in Iran and to state that the US should ensure American NGOs are not “unnecessarily hindered from working in Iran to provide humanitarian, human rights, and people-to-people assistance” to the Iranian people. However, this language is nonbinding and the bill did not lift the ban that prevents humanitarian relief and human rights organizations from working in Iran.

In contrast to its refusal to lift the ban on American humanitarian NGOs operating in Iran, Congress did provide an export exception for organizations “promoting democracy in Iran.”

The Act also requires the President to develop a list of Iranian officials responsible for human rights abuses since last June’s presidential election, and impose targeted sanctions against those officials including freezing their assets. Those sanctions will remain in place until Iran unconditionally releases all political prisoners and ceases its practices of violence, unlawful detention, torture, and abuse of its citizens.

The new bill also responds to a number of concerns made last year that Western companies have provided Iran with advanced censorship and surveillance technology. A provision of the bill strongly supported by NIAC will bar federal contracts for companies that export this type of repressive technology to Iran, in the hopes that such companies will cease their sales of technology that is used to restrict Iranians’ freedom of speech.




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