Congress Pushing for Unilateral Gasoline Sanctions Against Iran Despite Progress at U.N.

By Patrick Goodenough | May 19, 2010 | 7:03 AM EDT

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice speaks to reporters after a Security Council consultation on the situation in Iran, Tuesday, May 18, 2010 at United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

( – Key U.S. lawmakers said Tuesday that progress on new U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran would not stop a congressional push for legislation that will impose unilateral U.S. sanctions against Tehran, most crucially targeting its gasoline imports.
Conference committee discussions to resolve differences in separate bills passed earlier by the House and Senate are drawing to a close, and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Tuesday he hoped for a final floor vote next week.
“It is my expectation that Congress will soon send its own strong, targeted Iran sanctions bill to President Obama’s desk,” Hoyer said.
Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), cosponsor of the Senate bill and co-chairman of the conference committee, welcomed the developments at the U.N. but said Congress would not “retreat” from its own sanctions initiative.
Earlier, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a Senate panel that a draft resolution being circulated to all Security Council members had the support of Russia and China. With all five veto-wielding permanent members in agreement, the measure will need only another four votes from the 10 non-permanent members to pass.
Clinton called the draft “strong” and U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice told reporters it would add “teeth” to the three earlier rounds of sanctions adopted since 2006 in response to Tehran’s nuclear activities, especially its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment.
Elements of the as-yet unreleased text reportedly include restrictions on conventional arms sales, Iranian banks linked to proliferation, and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps business interests.
What it does not include are measures targeting the import of refined petroleum products. Despite having massive oil reserves, Iran is obliged to bring in up to 40 percent of its gasoline needs because of inadequate refinery infrastructure. Proponents of gasoline sanctions describe them as the most effective sanctions tool available.
The sanctions bills passed by the House and Senate both target companies that supply gasoline to Iran or facilitate the shipments, with the Senate version also seeking to act against companies that help improve Iran’s domestic refinery capacity.
One of the issues the conference committee has been grappling with is a White House request for the final bill to include an exemption for companies from nations deemed to be “cooperating” on Iran – an exemption the administration characterized as necessary to help its multilateral efforts in the Security Council.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice greets Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the U.N. Security Council chamber on May 11, 2009 (U.N. Photo by Mark Garten)

Whether an exemption is included, and whether it benefits Russian and Chinese companies in particular, remains to be seen.
Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), Dodd’s co-chair on the conference committee, said earlier that there was “a certain logic to such an exemption, provided it isn’t too broad.”
(Russian and especially Chinese companies – including the state-controlled Sinopec and China National Petroleum Corporation – are among Iran’s leading energy partners, according to recent Congressional Research Service and Government Accountability Office reports.)
Russia and China have participated in discussions on a Security Council resolution over the past month, but have not hidden their lack of enthusiasm about sanctions – and in particular their strong opposition to sanctions targeting gasoline.
“Sanctions should not affect the normal supply of energy,” Chinese ambassador to the U.N. Li Baodong told reporters Tuesday, in remarks that also reiterated Beijing’s long-held stance that “dialogue, diplomacy and negotiations are the best way to address the Iranian nuclear issue.”
Russia’s strongly-held views are not limited to Security Council action. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov raised the issue of unilateral U.S. sanctions in a phone conversation with Clinton Tuesday.
According to a Russian foreign ministry statement he expressed concern that the U.S. and European Union could “go beyond a collective Security Council position” and impose unilateral sanctions. Doing so would contravene “the principle of the rule of the international law, enshrined in the U.N. Charter,” the statement quoted him as telling Clinton.
Last week, Lavrov suggested that international law should take precedence over U.S. national legislation.
Unlike most other states, he said in a speech to Russian lawmakers, the U.S. does “not consider international legal acts with their participation as being preemptive over their national legislation.”
Citing the Iran resolution at the U.N. as an example, Lavrov said, “Russia presumes that if the Security Council adopts some decisions collectively, then countries that faithfully implement these decisions cannot under any circumstances be the subject of unilateral sanctions by one or other state, adopted in circumvention of the Security Council.”
“Unfortunately, the position of the United States still appears to lack an understanding of this, in my opinion, absolutely self-evident truth,” Lavrov said. A copy of his speech was released by his ministry.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow