06/09/2009 Update – The House of Representatives is no longer planning to vote on the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act of 2009 this week, NIAC has learned, out of concern that it could benefit hardline candidates in the Iranian election. The bill had been scheduled for a vote on Tuesday, a mere three days before the Iranian presidential election, according to a Congressional schedule posted by the Republican leadership over the weekend.
Tehran is a happening place this week. Major US newspapers report of street rallies and parties, shouting matches between supporters of rival candidates and a general carnival atmosphere. Of course, many are only taking advantage of freedoms that solely descend on Iran days before presidential elections. This is the time to do what one otherwise can’t do – party, dance in the streets and yell out anger at Iran’s many injustices. But many are also genuinely excited about the prospects for change in the June 12 elections.
Mir Hossein Moussavi, the centrist-reformist candidate, is the main benefactor of this wave of excitement. But Ahmadinejad has helpers in unexpected places: The US Congress.
The Democratic House Leadership has put on the suspension calendar – meaning fast tracking a vote deemed to be uncontroversial – H.R. 1327, the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act of 2009.
H.R. 1327, among other things, authorizes State and local governments to divest from Iran. As of now, at least ten States have enacted Iran divestment legislation, but most legal experts agree that without federal authorization such measures violate the Constitution.
Supported by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, proponents of the bill argue that additional sanctions on Iran increases US leverage over Iran. The bill has been portrayed as a measure to enhance President Obama’s diplomatic strategy.
Obama, however, doesn’t seem to agree – even though he himself sponsored a similar bill when he served in the Senate. Secretary of State Clinton told lawmakers earlier in May that “Until we have tested, within the time period set forth by the president, where we think this engagement is going, I am not sure that adding new unilateral sanctions is really that helpful.”
When AIPAC pushed hard for another sanctions legislation this spring, the White House pushed back hard. The White House prevailed, but the showdown revealed that the window for US-Iran diplomacy may not only get closed by the ticking nuclear clock, but also by pressure from Congress for new sanctions.
Now, I am biased against this bill as I testified in Congress against it. My arguments echoed the arguments the White House later used – imposing new sanctions prior to diplomacy having begun will only decrease the chances of successful diplomacy.
But to put this sanctions bill on the suspension calendar – only three days before Iranians go to vote – may have another consequence: it may tip the elections in Ahmadinejad’s favor.
This Congressional act will likely be seen as a provocation in Iran – coming in the last crucial days before the elections. And if the Bush administration’s policies taught us anything, it’s that confrontational measures do not strengthen the moderates in the Middle East. It strengthens the radicals.
The timing couldn’t be better for Ahmadinejad. The momentum in the last week has clearly been with Moussavi. And contrary to Ahmadinejad’s calculations, the Iranian presidential debates – aired live on national TV – only helped strengthen Moussavi’s momentum. Much indicates that Ahmadinejad shot himself in the foot in the debates through personal attacks on Moussavi and his wife (!). Rather than creating doubts in people’s minds about Moussavi, Ahmadinejad only managed to showcase his own petty side. A typical case of negative campaigning backfiring.
Though Moussavi is still the underdog, all he needs to do at this stage is to ensure that Ahmadinejad doesn’t get a majority of the votes. If he and the two other anti-Ahmadinejad presidential candidates in the race – Karroubi and Rezai – can muster more than 50 percent of the vote, the elections go to a run-off on June 19. And in the run-off (assuming that it will be between Moussavi and Ahmadinejad), Moussavi may emerge as the favorite, since a stark majority of Rezai and Karroubi votes will go to him.
Most polls show that Ahmadinejad’s has a plurality of the votes, not a majority. So he is in trouble – and in need of help. And in Congress, he may have some helpers. If the House passes Iran Sanctions Enabling Act on Tuesday, Congress may give Ahmadinejad’s campaign the crucial vitamin injection that the Iranian electorate thus far has denied him
Update: NIAC has contacted Congressional leadership, which has confirmed that H.R. 1327 is no longer on the legislative calendar for this week, citing the upcoming Iranian election.
Trita Parsi is President of the National Iranian American Council (niacouncil.org) and author of “Treacherous Alliance — The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the U.S.”, a Silver Medal Recipient of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Arthur Ross Book Award, the most significant award for a book on foreign affairs.