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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 25, April 1998

Iran Sanctions Controversy in Congress

On 2 April, Representative Benjamin Gilman (Republican - New York), the Chair of the House International Relations Committee, wrote to President Clinton insisting that the Administration decide within three weeks whether to impose sanctions on three foreign companies - Total of France, Petronas of Malaysia and Gazprom of Russia - contracted to build a gas pipeline in Iran. According to Gilman, the pipeline contract is a violation of US law - the 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) - seeking to isolate Iran on the grounds of its alleged support for terrorism and attempts to acquire weapons of mass destruction. The Clinton Administration has been pondering the matter since the contracts were announced in September 1997; the threat of sanctions caused a major row between the US and European Union (see Disarmament Diplomacy, No. 19 (October 1997) pp. 47-48).

Gilman wrote to Clinton: "Congress is about to begin a three-week recess... If ILSA remains unimplemented when we reconvene, this Committee will begin to explore whether there has been a wilful decision not to enforce the law in this matter... Mr. President, refusing to enforce the law in this case is not an option, not least because your oath of office requires you to see that the laws are faithfully executed... I regret having to be so blunt, but I am sure you can appreciate that the Congress cannot be indifferent to whether the laws it passes are enforced..."

State Department spokesperson James Rubin responded to the letter on 3 April: "All options remain open, including the possibility of sanctions... I'm not going to speculate as to when our review will be complete, but it certainly won't be based on some arbitrary deadline." Congress is also planning voting soon on new legislation giving the Administration the right to impose sanctions against "entities" identified as assisting Iran's ballistic missile programmes. The proposed legislation would require the President to supply to Congress a list of "every foreign person with respect to whom there is credible evidence" of involvement in Iranian missile development since 8 August 1995. Russian companies are the declared principal target of the legislation, as Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (Republican - Mississippi) made clear on 3 April:

"We are still very much concerned that Russian companies are providing technology to Iran that could be used in very dangerous ways. The Administration has been working with Russia to try to address this problem, but sufficient progress has not been made... We're trying to set a time [for voting on the new legislation]...so that we can see if progress is being made. If not, the Senate should act... The Senate cannot in good conscience allow this resolution to pend indefinitely..."

On 16 April, the newspaper US Today reported that the State Department had drawn up a list of 30 Russian agencies and research facilities which it considers should be classified as ineligible to receive US aid or assistance because of possible involvement in supplying missile equipment and technology to Iran. Gary Samore, a special advisor to President Clinton, was quoted in the report as saying:

"What we're doing is limiting our cooperation with Russian entities which might have or might be providing assistance to Iran's missile program... If someone came to us proposing a project involving one of these entities, we might still approve it, depending on the specifics."

Reports: US Senate may take up Iran missile sanctions bill, Reuters, 3 April; Clinton given deadline on Iran sanctions, Reuters, 3 April; US rebuffs Congressman on Iran, Associated Press, 3 April; US said to bar Russian research aid, Associated Press, 16 April.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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