Obama Lines Up Behind Neo-Conservative Campaign Against Iran

Neo-conservatives, some of whom have claimed to see hopeful glimmers in Sen. Barack Obama’s foreign-policy positions of the kind of interventionism that gets them excited , should be further heartened by the presidential hopeful’s sponsorship of a new bill that, if passed, is certain to increase tensions not only with Iran, but with Washington’s European allies as well.

The bill, the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act of 2007, would require the federal government to publish a list of U.S. overseas subsidiaries and foreign companies that have invested more than $20 million dollars in Iran’s energy sector. It would also authorize state and local governments to divest the assets of their pension and other funds from any company on that list and protect fund managers who divest from listed companies from lawsuits by investors unhappy with the results.

“The Iranian governments uses the billions of dollars it earns from its oil and gas industry to build its nuclear program and to fund terrorist groups that export its militaristic and radical ideology to Iraq and throughout the Middle East,” Obama said in a statement released by his office this week. “Pressuring companies to cut their financial ties with Iran is critical to ensuring that sanctions have their intended result.”

The bill, which was also introduced in the House of Representatives by Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Tom Lantos and Financial Services chairman Barney Frank, is part of a much broader national divestment campaign spearheaded by some of the most hawkish neo-conservative groups, notably Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy (CSP); the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, as well as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). I wrote about the neo-con role in driving the divestment campaign last week.

Besides “naming and shaming” the countries to be listed, the bill is apparently designed to overcome potential constitutional challenges to Iran-related divestment bills – one of which was cleared by Florida’s legislature last month — that are currently being actively considered in about a dozen states. One such bill is expected to be introduced shortly in Obama’s home state of Illinois where a similar Sudan divestment law was ruled unconstitutional by a federal court earlier this year on the grounds that it interfered with the federal government’s ability to conduct foreign policy and regulate foreign trade. That decision was based largely on a unanimous 2000 Supreme Court ruling on selective-purchasing laws directed against companies doing business in Burma.

“Federal law should not stand in the way of investors or state and local governments who want to act on their own conviction about morality and American interests,” Frank said.

Acutely aware of public disenchantment with Iraq and opposition to an attack on Iran and convinced that the UN Security Council will never be willing to impose serious sanctions of its own, neo-conservatives, in apparent co-ordination with the right-wing “Israel Lobby,” have been trying for much of the past year to rally support for tougher unilateral economic sanctions, including divestment, against Iran. Determined to sabotage any move by ascendant “realists” in the Bush administration to seriously engage Tehran, they have depicted the unilateral sanctions as the logical middle ground between engagement and military action.

Among the various problems associated with unilateral sanctions, particularly those that attempt to extend U.S. law — it is illegal for U.S. companies to invest in Iran – to foreign entities, is that they tend to engender resentment overseas. Thus, not only will the Iranian leadership interpret divestment as a hostile act, but U.S. allies, particularly in Europe whose companies have the largest the largest investments in Iran, may become less, rather than more, inclined to cooperate with Washington in applying multilateral pressure on Tehran, be it at in the Security Council or in other forums. While that presents no particular problem to hard-line neo-conservatives who still favour attacking Iran if sanctions do not have the desired effect and who believe that Europeans are cynical or wimps or both, it should bring pause to those, like Obama, who have argued that Washington needs to be far more sensitive to the interests and concerns of other nations, particularly its closest allies, than it has under Bush.

Of course, in the context of domestic politics, Democratic presidential hopefuls like Obama are eager to show that, even as they join the growing clamor for an early withdrawal from Iraq and oppose war against Iran (while insisting, along with the administration, that all options should remain on the table), they remain “tough on Iran” – even if that could well make war before the end of Bush’s term more likely, rather than less.

That, of course, is not Obama’s calculation. In an interview this week with Israel’s Haaretz, Obama criticized the administration for not opening talks with Tehran earlier and praised the decision to finally begin bilateral talks with the Iranians on Iraq as a “step in the right direction” that may “establish a pattern of dialogue,” he also stressed that a nuclear Iran “will be a major threat to us …and one that we have to take seriously.” It is in that context, he explained that more pressure on the regime, including divestment and not taking the threat of military action off the table, was called for.

Nor is that calculation confined to the presidential candidates. In two votes in the House this week on the 2008 Defense Authorization bill, Democrats concerned that Bush may yet to resort to attacking Iran before his term in office expires came up short. An amendment introduced by Rep. Peter DeFazio that would have required Bush to seek Congressional authorization for military action against Iran except in the case of a “national emergency created by an attack by Iran upon the United States, its territories, or possessions or its armed forces” was defeated 288-136. A second amendment, introduced by Rep. Robert Andrews, that would have barred funding for planning a “major contingency operation” in Iran, was defeated by a narrower margin – 216-202. The votes followed a threat from the White House to veto the pending bill if it included “provisions that would prevent the president from protecting America and allied and cooperating nations from threats posed by Iran.”

While all of these moves may serve, as many Democrats claim, to strengthen “moderates” in the Iranian regime and make it more inclined to meet U.S. and western demands to freeze its uranium enrichment program, they may just as well have the contrary result.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.