The House Foreign Affairs Committee will be marking up its version of the Iran sanctions bill on Wednesday, and last-minute additions by the Chair, Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, will no doubt provoke great enthusiasm among the hardest of hard-liners in Tehran. Her version of an already-terrible bill should eliminate any doubt that its proponents want to involve the U.S. in yet another war in the Middle East, contrary to their repeated protestations that the proposed sanctions are designed to avoid war by forcing Iran to peacefully capitulate to whatever demands are made on it by the U.S. Congress
Among the new provisions that appear intended to ensure that the Iranian public, including the Green Movement, will rally behind the regime and perceive the United States as an existential enemy, if not the “Great Satan,” is one that would make it illegal for
any U.S. person employed with the United States Government [to] contact in an official or unofficial capacity any person that—
(1) is an agent, instrumentality, or official of, is affiliated with, or is serving as a representative of the Government of Iran; and
(2) presents a threat to the United States or is affiliated with terrorist organizations…
Lest you think this too draconian, Ros-Lehtinen and her allies have added a presidential waiver provision whereby the president can waive the ban on contact if he
“determines and so reports to the appropriate congressional committees 15 days prior to the exercise of waiver authority that failure to exercise such waiver authority would pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the vital national security interests of the United States.
As Paul Pillar comments on his blog:
If enacted, this legislation certainly would have practical effects. It would prevent any exploration of ways to resolve disagreement over that Iranian nuclear program that we are supposedly so intensely concerned about. It would prevent soliciting Iranian cooperation in areas, such as Afghanistan, where some Iranian and U.S. interests run parallel, and the Iranians could be helpful rather than causing trouble. It would preclude discussion of miscellaneous matters of interest to Americans such as the recent return of those captured hikers. And it would prevent any diplomacy to keep U.S.-Iranian incidents or crises—the kind that retired joint chiefs chairman Admiral Mullen expressed concern about—from spinning out of control, unless the crisis conveniently stretched out beyond the fifteen-day notification period. (By way of comparison, the entire Cuban missile crisis lasted thirteen days.)
A second provision included in the proposed bill really got to me, if only because it’s hard to imagine anything that would alienate Iranians more easily given the infamous USS Vincennes shootdown over the Strait of Hormuz of Iran Air Flight 655 on July 3, 1988, in which 290 people, including 66 children, were killed. This provision would revoke the president’s authority to permit the export of civilian aircraft parts and repairs for Iranian civilian aircraft to ensure flight safety for humanitarian reasons.
In contemplating the wisdom of this provision, consider that, over the past decade, more than 1,000 Iranian and foreign travelers have died in civilian airplane crashes in Iran believed to have been caused by worn-out equipment that would have been replaced but for U.S. sanctions against Iran’s civilian aviation industry. As noted by the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), the regime has cited these crashes as evidence that the U.S. is the enemy of the Iranian people. “[E]liminating the humanitarian waiver authority for civilian aircraft parts and repairs only plays into this propaganda,” according to NIAC. That’s an understatement.
Now consider a not-altogether-inconceivable scenario as the Obama administration yields to pressure to build up its naval assets in the Strait of Hormuz to make the threat of military action “more credible.”
A civilian airliner — remember: both Iran Air and Mahan Air, the country’s two biggest commercial airlines have already been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury for their alleged ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force — takes off from an Iranian airport headed for Dubai (as Iran Air Flight 655 still does) or some other destination that takes it over the Strait. Due to the lack of a spare part, that could have been sold to the airline had the proposed sanction not taken effect, or some other problem (like a simple delay), the plane strays from its regular course and approaches a U.S. warship that perceives or misidentifies it as a possible and imminent threat.
If Ros-Lehtinen’s version becomes law, the ship’s captain couldn’t even radio Iranian naval vessels, or air traffic controllers, or airline officials (including the pilot) to identify the plane without 15 days’ notice by the president. And if that captain, not willing to take chances with the lives of his crew then orders the aircraft shot down…. What then?
Just to be clear, the Iran Air 655 flight that was shot down by the Vincennes was not “straying” nor was it “approaching a US warship.” It was on its intended flightpath, and was shot down while it was still inside Iranian airspace. There was an attempt to contact the pilot but these communications were directed to an unidentified “fighter” and not to a civilian airliner, so the Iranian captain would not have been able to identify his vessel as the intended recipient, according to the ICAO report on the event.
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