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Iran-baiting lawmakers busy ratcheting up tension

by Cesar Chelala

In a move consistent with his past positions on international issues, Sen. Robert Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee,has accused the White House of using “over the top” rhetoric and “fear mongering tactics” to discourage new sanctions on Iran.

These new sanctions were to take effect after the United States brokered an interim deal with Iran over its nuclear program.

The deal with Iran agreed by the U.S. and its P5-plus- 1 partners (the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany) has been sharply criticized by some Democrats and many Republicans who are strong supporters of Israel. A bill aimed at imposing further sanctions on Iran is stalled in the Senate after the Obama administration asked for a delay to seek a diplomatic solution to the impasse with that country.

Under the deal agreed with Iran, that country will accept restrictions on its nuclear program. In exchange, the U.S. and other world powers will provide limited relief from economic sanctions that have considerably damaged the economy, cut significantly into Iran’s oil exports and harmed Iranians’ quality of life.

Menendez, who often supports President Barack Obama, stated on the National Public Radio program All Things Considered: “What I don’t appreciate is when I hear remarks out of the White House spokesman that … if we’re pursuing sanctions we’re marching the country off to war. I think that’s way over the top, I think that’s fear mongering.”

Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, and Sen. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, are preparing a bill for consideration when the Senate returns Monday from its two-week recess.

The Menendez-Kirk proposal would require the administration to certify every 30 days that Iran is fulfilling the terms of the accord reached in Geneva and that it hasn’t been involved in any act of terrorism against the U.S.

Among the reasons the Obama administration has sought a deal with Iran is that limiting U.S. military commitments and resources in the Greater Middle East will allow the U.S. to free them up for use elsewhere or make substantial savings in its military expenditures.

Menendez doesn’t seem to see these advantages, preferring to lead an effort to strengthen sanctions and thus increase animosity with Tehran, which can only have ominous consequences in future efforts to secure peace with Iran.

Also important to consider are actions proposed by Menendez to hinder the possibility of getting Iran’s help in resolving pressing problems such as Syrian conflict and Afghanistan’s rehabilitation.

Daud Moradian, director of the Afghan Institute of Strategic Studies, stated recently that both the U.S. and Iran had started to cooperate in the rehabilitation of Afghanistan’s infrastructure.

In spite of that, Menendez said, after the Geneva agreement was announced, “I do not believe we should further reduce our sanctions, nor abstain from preparations to impose new sanctions” — something that, if carried out, would again put the region on the path to war.

Regarding these new developments, Uri Avnery, one of Israel’s leading peace activists stated, “To save itself from the image of utter failure, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has begun ordering its senators and congressmen to work out new sanctions to be instituted in some indefinite future.”

New sanctions would destroy the possibility for peaceful coexistence with Iran and crush Iran President Hassan Rouhani’s position vis-a-vis hardliners.

Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and expert on Iranian affairs, declared that new sanctions would limit Rouhani’s ability to maintain his “soft position” on negotiations. American legislators must consider this to avoid further conflict in the region.

Cesar Chelala, M.D. and Ph.D., is a co-winner of the Overseas Press Club of America award and focuses on humanitarian issues.