Time is running out, say advocates of new congressional sanctions against Iran, with some wondering if a nuclear deadline for the Islamic Republic looms as early as next year. But an election or three -- in the United States, Israel and Iran -- seem to stand in the way of coordinated action, and conventional wisdom posits that a U.S. president who is perhaps the lamest duck in decades is hardly in a position to carry through with meaningful action.
Against this backdrop, attention has turned increasingly to the possibility of Israel launching a pre-emptive strike, with reports claiming that U.S. officials have told Jerusalem not to take such action. At the same time, however, both vice-presidential candidates have said in recent weeks that the United States should respect any Israeli decision on the matter and both campaigns were planning this week to discuss their Iran policies with Jewish communal leaders.
In the Congress, escalating concerns about Iran have prompted Democrats and Republicans to set aside sharp election-year differences to coordinate with Israel and the pro-Israel lobby to push through sanctions legislation before year's end, including the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act sponsored by Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).
The measure would mandate the publication every six months of a list of companies invested in Iran's energy and defense sectors in order to facilitate divestment from Iran by state pension funds. It also protects from lawsuits fund managers who divest from Iran.
Obama's bill and the Iran Counterproliferation Act are under consideration for attachment to a defense authorization measure that must be passed this term.
The bills have been held up until now because of resistance from the Bush administration and congressional Republicans for myriad reasons: Some business interests have opposed the counterproliferation bill because it would close loopholes that have allowed American companies to continue working with Iran through foreign-owned subsidiaries.
Additionally, the Bush administration has aggressively opposed limitations on its executive prerogative in foreign policy. Pro-Israel insiders say that some Republicans have opposed the sanctions-enabling legislation because they don’t want to give Obama, the Democrats' presidential nominee, a legislative victory in an election year.
But many of those differences have been set aside in recent weeks, pro-Israel insiders told JTA.
Dan Shapiro, an Obama foreign policy adviser and top Jewish outreach coordinator, confirmed to JTA that Obama's bill, which would offer tort protections to pensions that divest from Iran, is likely to be part of the defense authorization measure that is set to pass.
"It has the support of several dozen senators," Shapiro said.
He would not, however, count out resistance from the White House.
Earlier sanctions have had an impact: Businesses increasingly are reluctant to invest in Iran in part because of sanctions Bush has implemented on Iranian banks through executive order.
The perceived need for some kind of action has been exacerbated by the lame-duck status of Bush, who is exiting office as one of the least popular presidents in modern history, and Wednesday's primaries in Israel. The Israeli vote is likely to be followed by weeks or months of political realignments ahead of new general elections.
In addition, Iran is set to hold presidential elections next June, raising hopes of ousting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose fiery rhetoric has fanned much of the anxiety about a nuclear Iran.
According to experts, the next president -- whether it is Obama or U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- is likely to ramp up the pressure on Iran. But differences persist in how each man would go about increasing the pressure.
A bipartisan slate of five former secretaries of state -- including Henry Kissinger, now a McCain adviser -- met this week under CNN auspices and agreed that talks with Iran would likely be on the agenda next year, whoever is president. McCain repeatedly has criticized Obama’s willingness to talk with Iranian leaders and painted the Democratic candidate as dangerously naive on the matter.
Obama is considering how best to establish an international commitment to further isolate Iran; McCain is considering ways to encourage internal Iranian dissent toward regime change.
Both campaigns are making their case on Iran this week to segments of the Jewish community. On Wednesday, McCain's senior advisers were to meet with Jewish backers in Arlington, Va., while Obama himself was to take part in a conference call with rabbinical leaders.
"This is an extremely important issue, an extremely serious issue, and an extremely urgent issue," Tony Lake, Obama's top national security adviser, said at an event organized by the Center for U.S. Global Engagement in Denver during the Democratic National Convention last month. “It could well lead to the worst crisis that we will see over the next five years because the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon will present a huge threat to the security of Israel, to others in the region, to the Europeans, including the Russians, and many others."
Obama wants to see "progress between now and next January," Lake said, but already is planning action "as soon as he takes office."
Dennis Ross, the former top Middle East negotiator under Bush's father and Bill Clinton, and now a senior Obama adviser, said the candidate's preferred approach would be "serious sticks and serious carrots" -- in that order.
"You've got to change the formula from weak sticks and weak carrots, which is not enough to concentrate the Iranian mind in terms of the negotiations and make them change behavior," Ross told JTA.
An Obama administration would rally the international community to cut off refined petroleum exports to Iran, hitting almost half of its gas supply, and end investment in the Islamic Republic's antiquated energy infrastructure.
The obstacles to such a strategy remain China and Russia, which maintain extensive business contacts in Iran. Ross described a strategy of first targeting China, which depends heavily on Iran for its oil supply. China, he noted, is even more dependent on Saudi oil, yet no serious effort has been made to recruit Saudi Arabia into leveraging the Chinese into isolating Iran, even though the Saudis have even more to fear from a nuclear Iran than Israel.
Ross said Obama also became interested, after touring Israel in July and meeting top security officials there, in targeting the five major re-insurers -- the companies that underwrite insurance companies. A re-insurance boycott would go a substantial way toward crippling Iran's energy sector.
The McCain campaign is similarly exercised about Iran, but is mapping a different approach focused on supporting internal political resistance to the regime.
"I think you'll see John McCain, diplomatically, working very aggressively with countries throughout the Middle East who feel, and properly so, a threat from the rise of the Shi'a extremist regime, and try to get a larger condominium to address them," said Richard Williamson, the Bush administration's envoy to Sudan who also is advising the McCain campaign, earlier this month in Minneapolis.
McCain campaign officials did not return requests for interviews on the topic, but Williamson advocated a "soft" campaign of encouraging democratization within Iran as well as building up a regional front that would isolate the regime.
"There has to be a recognition that that regime has its own fissions, and divisions within it," he said, before rattling them off: "The balance of power between the president, Ahmadinejad, and the supreme leader, constituencies, it has economic growth problems, it has an increasingly dissatisfied younger population and the majority of the country is under 30 years of age, and it has stresses with neighbors."
Williamson added: "I think you're going to see John McCain utilizing the instruments he has been involved in, all over the world, in over 90 countries, in trying to help civil society, endemic democratic institutions grow."