More than three quarters of the members in both Houses of Congress wrote to President Obama urging him to unilaterally sanction Iran.
The U.S. House of Representatives letter, initiated by Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) and Mike Pence (R-Ind.) garnered 363 signatories; the Senate letter, initiated by Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), garnered 76.
Jackson linked the need for sanctions to President Obama’s summit this week aimed at containing the threat of nuclear terrorism.
“There is no greater or more immediate threat to the president’s vision and agenda of non-proliferation than Iran,” he said at a press conference Wednesday, when the letters were sent, referring to advances in Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.
The Obama administration has resisted unilateral sanctions, preferring to focus on multilateral sanctions through the U.N. Security Council.
Existing congressional sanctions and a package of enhancements now under consideration are much more punitive than planned multilateral sanctions. The U.N. sanctions would expand the list of Iranian individuals and entities subject to travel and business restrictions. The congressional sanctions target third parties that deal with Iran.
The Obama administration is concerned that such targeting will anger countries it wants on board for the U.N. sanctions.
The letters support Obama’s efforts to build multinational sanctions, but do not countenance a contradiction between these and the unilateral sanctions.
“We urge you to move rapidly to implement your existing authority on Iran and the legislation we send you, and to galvanize the international community for immediate, devastating steps,” both letters conclude.
Congress passed a sanctions bill in 1996, but no president has ever used its sanctions; the new package would place restrictions on the presidential prerogative to waive the sanctions.
Versions of the bill have passed in both houses in recent months. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the majority leader, and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the minority whip, attended Wednesday’s press conference and said they would by the end of this week announce a schedule for reconciliation of the bills and final passage.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has for years lobbied hard for such sanctions, strongly praised the letters. In a lobbying blitz, delegates to its annual policy conference two weeks ago urged lawmakers to sign.
“The letters underscore the urgent, overwhelming and bipartisan demand in Congress that the United States lead the international community to immediately staunch the growing threat of a nuclear Iran,” AIPAC said in a statement.
Lee Rosenberg, AIPAC’s president and a native of Chicago, strongly credited Jackson for initiating the letter, noting his influential post on the foreign operations subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee.
“As a member of the foreign ops subcommittee, Jess is in a position to make a real and meaningful impact for the U.S. Israel relationship,” Rosenberg told JTA. “His leadership in working to stop Iran’s nuclear program and pressing for immediate and increased sanctions is something the whole pro-Israel community should be thankful for.”
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