Thursday, June 15, 2006

An Effort to Take a Harder Stance on Iran Is Derailed

ELi Lake, The NY Sun:
Faced with legislation that would force America to take a harder line on Iran, Secretary of State Rice worked closely yesterday with a key Senate Democrat to kill an amendment sponsored by the Senate's third-ranking Republican.

That amendment - offered by Senator Santorum, a Republican of Pennsylvania, to legislation authorizing the Pentagon budget - would have codified existing restrictions on American businesses investing in Iran; authorized $100 million for democracy groups in the country, and given the president a 180-day deadline to determine whether foreign companies doing business in Iran should be barred from American capital markets.

The amendment also would have closed a loophole that has allowed offshore subsidiaries of American companies such as Halliburton to secure contracts in the Islamic Republic's oil sector. READ MORE

But Mr. Santorum's initiative failed yesterday when the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Biden of Delaware, called Ms. Rice at 10:30 a.m. and asked for her opinion on the amendment. Her answer set the administration against one of its most prominent supporters in the Senate.

"I spoke this morning with the secretary of state, who authorized me to say, unequivocally, the administration opposes this amendment," Mr. Biden told the Senate. "It limits their flexibility in doing what we all want: preventing the construction of a nuclear weapon in Iran."

A letter from the State Department's assistant secretary for legislative affairs, Jeffrey Bergner, arrived in Mr. Santorum's office at 11 a.m., saying the senator's amendment "would shift unified international attention away from Iran's nuclear activities and create a rift between the U.S. and our closest international partners."

By yesterday afternoon, Mr. Santorum's amendment on Iran had been defeated by a vote of 54 to 45,with only four Democratic senators - Evan Bayh of Indiana, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, and Bill Nelson of Florida - voting for the sanctions and aid to Iranian democrats. Both New York senators, Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton, cast votes against the amendment.

The vote rejecting Mr. Santorum's Iran legislation is in step with the new, softer line on Iran coming from the White House. A State Department spokesman yesterday declined to deny news reports that last week the European Union's foreign policy chief did not present - at least in writing - a list of consequences Iran faced if it did not suspend uranium enrichment and rejoin negotiations on its nuclear program.

The vote also appears to signal a new strategy by hawkish Senate Democrats that as them to cleave to President Bush's top diplomat as political cover to take on their GOP colleagues. Mr. Biden, Mrs. Clinton, and Mr. Schumer have all taken on the left leaning members of their party, who have called for an immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

Mr. Santorum, for his part, said he was not surprised the State Department opposed his bill. "They have opposed it for months," he said. He did, however, express surprise at the coordinated resistance to the amendment he faced on the Senate floor.

"We really thought we had enough votes," he said. "Unless the Democrats have decided the State Department is going to dictate their foreign policy, then this looked like a coordinated effort. There were vast numbers of Republicans who voted for the amendment, but those who were against this were on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with the State Department."

One explanation for the legislative defeat is that the $100 million Mr. Santorum would have authorized for Iranian democrats was taken out of money the Pentagon had requested for fighting the insurgency in Iraq and rebuilding the country. Another is that the amendment did not go through the proper committees in the Senate for mark-up.

Mr. Schumer said in a statement that he supported renewing sanctions against Iran and that he expected the Senate Banking Committee to take up Mr. Santorum's bill in July. "This is not an issue that can be rushed through on no notice and it must be done right," he said.

Senator McCain, a Republican of Arizona, and Senator Smith, a Republican of Oregon - two lawmakers who in the past have always voted for punitive measures against Iran - both cited concerns about procedure as reasons for their opposition to the amendment.

A spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has supported Mr. Santorum's Iran Freedom and Support Act, said he was confident the bill, which has 61 co-sponsors, would eventually become law.

"It is an important piece of legislation that we expect will move through the normal committee jurisdiction, and we expect it to be taken up shortly," the spokesman, Josh Block, said.