To the surprise of pundits and activists alike, the Iran Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) was extended for another five years and signed into law by President George “The Oil-Cowboy” Bush in early August. In the July 2001 edition of IranAnalysis, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's (AIPAC) motivations for introducing the ILSA in 1996 and fighting for its renewal in 2001 were examined. The circumstances, tactics and politics that led to the renewal of the bill, which most lawmakers recognize as detrimental to US interests in the Middle East in general and the Persian Gulf region in particular, deserve greater attention.
There lies little doubt that the deteriorating situation in Israel/Palestine puts most other Middle Eastern issues on the backburner. The amount of energy spent on the Middle East crisis has left little time and resources for US-Iran relations or the Iraq-question. It has also been the strategy of the pro-Israeli lobby to ensure that advances on other Middle Eastern issues only be made to the extent that the “peace process” permits it. From the Israeli lobby's perspective, all American initiatives in the Middle East must be put on hold when the “peace process” moves in the wrong direction. This was the token of the Clinton-era, where the “peace process” was key to all other issues in the region.
President Bush promised to use a “regional approach”, i.e. he would not permit US interests in the region to be taken hostage by the unfolding of events in Israel/Palestine. However, the collapse of the “peace process” has made this promise difficult, at best, to keep. From the perspective of the Israeli lobby, it would simply be an unspeakable setback if the “peace process” collapsed with Israel loosing the propaganda war while President Bush moved to improve relations with Iran. Needless to say, AIPAC redoubled its efforts and used the “peace process” card to pressure US lawmakers to maintain the status quo on US-Iran relations by renewing ILSA. The violence in the Middle East created a much-needed opportunity for AIPAC to call for strong measures against Iran.
At the same time, the regime in Tehran was of no help. Reformists and conservatives alike staged a conference on Palestine earlier this year, inviting virtually all groups deemed as “terrorists” by the State Department. By being more Palestinian than the Palestinians themselves, Tehran ensured that it would remain the number one enemy of the Israeli lobby for years to come. Ayatollah Khamenei's rhetoric was often quoted by AIPAC lobbyists and put forward as an argument against any overtures to Iran while Israel was “under threat”.
Tactically, the Bush Administration committed two grave mistakes. First, the Administration reacted too slowly to reports on AIPAC's activities on the Hill. By March, AIPAC had gathered around 180 co-sponsors of ILSA in the House whereas the Administration had not even formulated a position on the issue. Intimidated by AIPAC's impressive groundwork on the Hill, Bush hesitated. A call for a review of sanctions on Iran and Libya was dropped from an energy policy report, and instead of taking a lead on the issue, the Administration left the field open for AIPAC.
It was not until early June that the White House took an official position on ILSA, where the second mistake was committed. Figuring that defeating ILSA altogether would be too difficult, the Administration proposed a two-year extension instead of five. This put the White House in a catch 22 position; if ILSA was a good policy, then why extend it for only two years, and if it was a bad policy, why extend it at all? The decision to go for a two-year extension caused the Administration to become the subject of criticism by both camps; one for “sending Iran a signal it does not deserve” and the other for prolonging a policy that counters US interests. The outcome of the vote could have been different had the Administration reacted more swiftly, which leads us to the politics of the ILSA extension.
It is often forgotten that ILSA also imposes sanctions on Libya. The reason may be as simple and accurate as the recognition that Libya is in the bill for the sole purpose of picking up votes. Everyone knows that the sanctions have no economic effects, but it is simply easier to impose useless sanctions on two rather than one terrorist-listed country. Whereas the Iran part of ILSA enjoys little, if any, support outside of AIPAC's circles, many lawmakers have Pan Am survivors living in their districts. For these lawmakers, it would be political suicide to drop sanctions on Qadafi's Libya. Furthermore, whereas Iran has undergone tremendous change during the past four years, the status quo in Libya has never been more deafening. Had the sanctions on Iran and Libya been separated into two bills, chances are that neither would have passed. But the combination of ISA and LSA votes made ILSA a success.
Separate bills for the Iran and Libya sanctions is only the first step, however. Many lawmakers, whom are opposed to unilateral sanctions in general and ILSA in particular, were looking for an alternative bill they could vote for. Politically, many lawmakers worried that just letting ILSA lapse would make them look soft on Iran. An alternative bill with symbolic measures against Iran was needed in order to preclude such a situation. Had such a bill been drafted by the opponents of ILSA and supported by the Administration, the political difficulties associated with opposition to ILSA would have been evaded.
Last but not least, as has been emphasized numerous times in the IranAnalysis, the Iranian-American community must speak up in order to be heard. The sanctions prohibit money transactions to Iran, which in reality makes it illegal to send money to the flood victims in northern Iran. Whereas US oil-companies will fight sanctions to secure oil deals in Iran, and Boeing in order to reclaim the Iranian market from Airbus, only Iranian-Americans have the incentives to fight sanctions for the sake of the well-being of the Iranian people and to ensure that the rapprochement does not come at the expense of democracy in Iran.