Three weeks ago, Rep. Gary Ackerman, the Democrat from New York, delivered an impassioned speech on the House floor defending a controversial resolution he co-sponsored calling on President George W. Bush “to increase economic, political and diplomatic pressure on Iran.”
Since May, when the resolution was introduced, 247 members of Congress have signed on as co-sponsors, including numerous Democrats who are staunch critics of the Bush administration’s prewar Iraq intelligence. Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., introduced a companion resolution in the Senate on June 2 that is also on the fast track toward approval.
The non-binding resolution, H. Con. Res 362, was introduced just days before the annual American Israel Public Affairs policy meeting in which Iran was the main topic. AIPAC has lobbied Congress heavily to implement sanctions against Iran in language nearly identical to the provisions outlined in Ackerman’s House resolution.
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Progressive activists and policy analysts have criticized Ackerman and many of his Democratic colleagues claiming they have adopted a hawkish stance against Tehran due in large part to pressure from AIPAC.
Carah Ong, the Iran policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said in an interview that Congressional Democrats want to prove they are tough on national security and are using Iran as their “scapegoat.”
“Democrats are talking tougher on Iran because they perceive it as a political necessity in my opinion,” she said.
But she said that sort of political posturing could backfire.
Ackerman’s “resolution could provide political cover if this administration decides to take action against Iran,” Ong said. “It doesn’t help in terms of trying to deal with Iran when you have an administration advocating attacks against Iran.”
The United Nations has imposed three sets of sanctions against Iran over its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment. The U.S. and the and the European Union have implemented sanctions against Iran’s banks. Iran, meanwhile has vehemently denied that it is pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Iranian officials have said its uranium enrichment program is to meet the country’s growing demand for energy.
Washington lawmakers, however, aren’t buying it.
They are responding to the impasse with several resolutions and bills intended to pressure the Iranian regime to abandon its nuclear activities.
The most notable of the measures currently working its way through Congress is H. Con. Res 362 introduced in May by Ackerman.
Critics of the resolution say it’s tantamount to declaring an act of war against Iran due to the fact that many of the provisions cannot be enforced without military intervention.
H. Con. Res. 362 “demands that the President initiate an international effort to immediately and dramatically increase the economic, political, and diplomatic pressure on Iran to verifiably suspend its nuclear enrichment activities by, inter alia, prohibiting the export to Iran of all refined petroleum products; imposing stringent inspection requirements on all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains, and cargo entering or departing Iran; and prohibiting the international movement of all Iranian officials not involved in negotiating the suspension of Iran's nuclear program.”
Indeed, two weeks ago, three retired military officials urged Congress to abandon its support for H. Con Res 362 stating that the measure is “poorly conceived, poorly timed, and potentially dangerous.”
“The language demanding the President initiate an international effort "prohibiting the export to Iran of all refined petroleum products; imposing stringent inspection requirements on all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains, and cargo entering or departing Iran," is of particular concern because despite the protestations of its sponsors, we believe that implementation of inspections of this nature could not be accomplished without a blockade or the use of force,” said the July 10 letter signed by U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Jack Shanahan, Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb, and U.S. Army Lt. General Robert G. Gard, Jr., currently the chairman of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
They added that Ackerman and his Republican co-sponsor, Congressman Mike Pence, R-Ind., had drafted the resolution in such a way that “immense military resources would be required to implement such inspections of cargo moving through the seas, on the ground, and in the air.”
“The international community has shown no willingness to join in such an activity. Without a Security Council Resolution, implementation of these measures could be construed as an act of war,” their letter said. “Implementation of measures called for in the resolution could complicate our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and could cause oil prices to soar.”
Ackerman, in a July 9 statement during a meeting of House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, said, “assertions that the resolution constitutes a declaration of war are just absurd.”
“It is with puzzlement that I find that some have described a non-binding resolution that I have introduced, along with Mr. Pence and cosponsored by a majority of the House... as a resolution declaring war and calling for a naval blockade,” Ackerman said. “Nothing could be further from the truth or my intent.”
“As my colleagues know, [the resolution] doesn't get presented to the President, and it doesn't get signed, and it thus does not either become law or have the force of law. It's the sense of Congress. The final whereas clause of the resolution states as explicitly as the English language will allow, "Whereas nothing in this resolution shall be construed as an authorization of the use of force against Iran.” Since a naval blockade is by definition the use of force, the language of this resolution renders the prospect of a naval blockade simply out of the question. This resolution should not be the straw man that some would seek...Put simply, the only way to find a blockade or a declaration of war in the text of H. Con. Res. 362 is to insert them by the amending power of imagination alone. “
But the retired military officials said the resolution does not have to include clear-cut language declaring war against Iran for it to be interpreted that way.
“The sponsors argue that H. Con. Res. 362 as a concurrent resolution does not have the force of law, which is true, but it clearly risks sending a message to the Iranians, the Bush Administration, and the world that Congress supports a more belligerent policy toward, and, potentially, belligerent actions against, Iran,” the letter signed by the retires military officials says.
Implementation and Interpretation
Ong said she queried several international and constitutional lawyers to get their interpretation on Ackerman’s resolution. She said the responses she received were mixed, but all agreed that comes down to how the resolution would be interpreted and implemented.
One unidentified international attorney told Ong “it is difficult to see how ships 'entering' Iran could be subjected to 'stringent inspection' without the use of force.”
“Here the concurrent resolution is asking the President to do something which cannot possibly be done effectively without the use of force while disclaiming that it authorizes the use of force. Nice try, but no cigar,” the international attorney told Ong, according to a copy of their exchange Ong posted on her blog, Iran Nuclear Watch.
"If the US were to do unilaterally what clause 3 of H. Con. Res. 362 demands, it would clearly be a violation of international law on any number of grounds, the main one being the principle of freedom of the seas. But it doesn't do that; it only asks the President 'to initiate an international effort.' If that effort were successful and the Security Council passed a resolution calling on all UN members to implement clause 3 as a threat to the peace under Ch. VII of the UN Charter, that could conceivably be legal, since the International Court of Justice has ruled in the Libyan case that anything the Security Council does is legal. But I don't see that happening.
"The same thing goes for the sanctions called for in Clause 2, i.e. they would constitute violations of the international law if applied unilaterally by the US. That, however, is something the US could do unilaterally, since it wouldn't require a Security Council resolution and the US doesn't give a damn about international law. It would merely require an extension of the Iran Sanctions Act,” the lawyer said, according to Ong.
Fanning the Flames
Lawrence Wilkerson, the chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, agreed. He said Ackerman’s resolution would only lead to further conflict with Iran.
In an interview June 7 with the Real News Network, Wilkerson said, “Iran has already gained the regional power that these resolutions seek to prevent, leaving diplomatic engagement the only way to proceed.”
“Demographically, militarily, every way you want to measure hegemony, Iran is the dominant power in the Persian Gulf,” he said. “Therefore we’ve got to come to recognize that, we’ve got to deal with that and hope we can shape that to a responsible role in the gulf and the region, and ultimately in the world. The only way you do that is through diplomacy."
Ong, the Iran policy analyst, said that one of the troubling aspects of Ackerman’s resolution is that it “cherry-picked” the findings of the November 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) and the International Atomic Energy Agency to make the case that Iran is actively pursuing a nuclear weapons program.
The resolution states as fact that “the IAEA has confirmed such illicit covert nuclear activities as the importation of uranium hexafluoride, construction of a uranium enrichment facility, experimentation with plutonium, importation of centrifuge technology, construction of centrifuges, and importation of designs to convert highly enriched uranium gas into metal and shape it into the core of a nuclear weapon; Iran continues to expand the number of centrifuges at its enrichment facility, as made evident by its announced intention to begin installation of 6,000 advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium, in defiance of binding United Nations Security Council resolutions demanding Iran suspend enrichment activities; The November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate reported that Iran was secretly working on the design and manufacture of a nuclear warhead until at least 2003, but that Iran could have enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon as soon as late 2009.”
The NIE concluded that Iran had abandoned its covert nuclear weapons program in 2003, a fact not mentioned in Ackerman’s resolution.
Moreover, Ackerman’s resolution does not cite of a key finding in the NIE, which said “Some combination of threats of intensified international scrutiny and pressures, along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways, might - if perceived by Iran’s leaders as credible - prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons program.
The resolution also ignores the findings of IAEA Director Mohammed ElBaradei, who has consistently said there is no evidence to support claims that Iran is diverting nuclear materials for a weapons program.
H. Con. Res. 362 fails to reflect a key finding of the November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, which concluded that
IAEA Report Not Reviewed
Scott Ritter, the former United Nations chief weapons inspector in Iraq, has been highly critical of how Congress has characterized an IAEA report issued in May on Iran’s uranium enrichment program, which AIPAC and the Bush administration held up that as smoking-gun evidence that Iran is a grave threat to the United States and Israel.
Ritter said lawmakers have not thoroughly reviewed the report’s findings.
“We have a situation where the IAEA has published several technical reports all of which state there is no evidence Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program. None. Zero,” Ritter said in an interview. “Information has been provided to the IAEA by member nations, intelligence information. Now the IAEA has to be very circumspect when it says this but we all know that it’s basically intelligence provided to the agency by the United States of America, a nation openly hostile to Iran, a nation that has a track record of fabricating, exaggerating, and misrepresenting intelligence data. The data that’s been provided to the IAEA has derived from a laptop computer which even the IAEA claims is of questionable providence.”
Ritter said that because the United States has such a dominating role in the United Nations Security Council and in the Board of Governors the IAEA couldn’t ignore the information it receives from the United States about Iran.
“The IAEA can’t go to Iran with information that isn’t serious. So they say it’s serious and it needs to be investigated. So they go to Iran and the Iranians say, correctly so, ‘this is bullshit.’ You’re basically serving as a front to the CIA. The CIA is asking intelligence based questions about issues that are not relevant to the safeguards agreement, which, by the way, is the legally binding mandate that gives the IAEA the authority to do its work in Iran. You have to read the small print.
“The IAEA acknowledges that what it’s asking Iran to answer has nothing to do with its mandate of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. It is related to Security Council resolutions calling for the suspension of uranium and an investigation into a nuclear weapons program but the bottom line is what the IAEA has said is that Iran has not been forthcoming and Iran is saying it’s not their job to answer the CIA’s questions. So the IAEA reports that Iran is not being forthcoming on these issues and now it’s unnamed diplomats, i.e. American and British diplomats, who say they are very concerned because Iran’s refusal to cooperate only reinforces their concern that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program.
"This is purely CIA instigated tripe. When we get down to the nuts and bolts of the technical question of Iran’s uranium enrichment program and whether or not there’s any infrastructure in Iran that supports a nuclear weapons program and the IAEA technical find says there is none,” Ritter said.
Language Under Scrutiny
Ambassador William H. Luers, president of the United Nations Association of the USA, issued a statement July 9 opposing H. Con. Res. 362 stating that while his organization “recognizes” that Iran is not in compliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions regarding its nuclear program the resolution, as written, “can be construed to authorize forcible actions that violate fundamental principles of international law.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman, D-CA, said the concerns of policy analysts have led him to take the position that the resolution won’t move through his committee until the language is changed so as not to be construed as authorizing a military strike against Iran.
But the resolution may not be marked up in Berman’s committee if it gains enough co-sponsors. In that scenario, the resolution would go directly to the floor for a vote, likely on suspension, meaning no amendments and it has two-thirds of members of Congress co-sponsoring.
However, some congressional aides have indicated that is unlikely to happen prior to the August recess.
Wexler Withdraws Support
Still, Ong said the widespread support for H. Con Res 362 leads her to believe that it’s unlikely “the bill's co-sponsors really know what they've signed onto.”
“I don’t believe most members of Congress read the language of the resolution,” Ong said. “If they did they would have realized that it’s sloppily written.”
Congressman Robert Wexler, D-Fla., appears to have been one of the lawmakers who fit that description.
Wexler’s support for a resolution seen as leading to increased tensions with Iran contradicted the congressman’s support for diplomatic talks with the Iranian government on the nuclear issue and surprised many of the lawmaker’s strongest supporters in the progressive community.
Moreover, Wexler had been the first Representative to sign on as a co-sponsor to Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich’s articles of impeachment against President Bush. Earlier this year, Wexler called for the impeachment of Vice President Dick Cheney for using bogus intelligence to win support for a war against Iraq.
On July 9, however, the same day Ackerman took to the House floor to defend H. Con. Res. 362, Wexler suddenly changed his position on the resolution.
“Over the past several weeks, there has been a growing debate in Congress, the blogosphere and throughout the media about a controversial non-binding resolution (House Concurrent Resolution 362), which expresses the sense of Congress regarding the threat Iran's nuclear pursuit poses to international peace, stability in the Middle East, and the vital national security interests of the United States,” Wexler wrote in a column published in The Huffington Post.
“In the coming weeks, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, of which I am a member, may vote on House Concurrent Resolution 362. Given my growing concerns regarding this resolution, including its failure to advocate for direct American engagement with Tehran and open language that could lead to a US blockade of Iran, I will lead an effort to make changes to this resolution before it comes to the Foreign Affairs committee for a vote. Despite being a cosponsor of this resolution -- these changes will ultimately determine whether or not I will continue to support H. Con. Res. 362.
“My rationale for originally supporting H. Con. Res. 362... was to urge the Bush administration to pursue a policy to place additional economic, political and diplomatic pressure on Iran as part of an international endeavor to prevent Tehran from moving forward on its nuclear program,” Wexler wrote. “It is clear that despite carefully worded language in H. Con. Res. 362 that "nothing in this resolution should be construed as an authorization of the use of force against Iran" that many Americans across the country continue to express real concerns that sections of this resolution will be interpreted by President Bush as "a green light" to use force against Iran.
“To that end, I am not willing to leave even the "slightest crack" open for this president to unilaterally set this nation down another disastrous path of war in Iran. Therefore, I am preparing to offer amendments to H. Con. Res. 362 and articulate a responsible policy that places America in the strongest possible diplomatic position to thwart Iran's nuclear program and the difficult security challenges we face.”
Act of War
Cyrus Bina, a professor of Economics at the University of Minnesota, author of the book "The Economics of the Oil Crisis," and Sam Gardiner, a retired Air Force colonel, who taught strategy and military operations at the National War College, said H. Con. Res. 362 could also roil oil markets and lead to sky-high gasoline prices.
“By recommending a naval blockade in the Persian Gulf, Congress could likely be responsible for oil prices approaching $200 a barrel, which translates to nearly $7.50 a gallon of gas,” Bina and Gardiner wrote in a July 5 Op-Ed published in the ultra conservative Washington Times. “If [Congress passes] this resolution, [it] will make a bad situation worse not only for the American economy, but also for stability in Middle East. Among factors contributing to short-term oil prices are supply and demand, market speculation and the value of the dollar. Risk of a natural or political catastrophe jeopardizes the production and flow of oil which also plays a major role in the price Americans will have to pay at the pump.”
The authors added that Ackerman and other lawmakers who are backing the resolution claim sanctions and diplomacy have failed and “the naval blockade is the next step short of war.”
“They are wrong on both counts: Proper diplomacy — direct talks between the U.S. and Iran — has neither failed nor succeeded, because it has yet to be tried,” Bina and Gardiner wrote. “And the blockade is not a step short of war; it is war.”
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