In Reversal, Democrats Shelve Iran Resolution

by Maya Schenwar (source: Truth Out)
Saturday, October 11, 2008

Falling from shoo-in status to widely rejected legislation within the space of four months, a resolution that would have opened the door for a naval blockade on Iran was officially shelved at the end of September, after several of its cosponsors withdrew their support. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman has promised not to bring the bill, House Concurrent Resolution 362, before the committee until concerns about the text are addressed. 

    Given the scare-tactic-laden climate of the past eight years, 362's journey is remarkable: it represents a forceful effort by members of Congress - prodded by grassroots groups - to turn back the tides of impending war.

    "The game-changer occurred when lawmakers realized that the resolution would lead to a naval blockade and war," Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, told Truthout. "The mood in Congress is similar to what it is in the country as a whole - the appetite for another war in the Middle East simply isn't there."

    The Iran resolution, originally proposed in late May, would have imposed "stringent inspection requirements" on trade with Iran, making a military blockade and the legal use of force distinct possibilities. It quickly gained bipartisan support, even among some of Congress's most progressive members, such as impeachment advocate Robert Wexler, Oversight Committee chairman and vocal Bush critic Henry Waxman, and Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, rated the most liberal Democrat in Congress by the nonpartisan vote-tracking project GovTrack.

    Intense lobbying efforts by the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee propelled the bill forward, and in late June, sources close to Congressional leadership expected it to be ushered onto the House floor under suspension of the rules. A place on the suspension schedule - usually reserved for uncontroversial legislation - would have meant very limited debate and a quick vote for 362.

    AIPAC framed the bill as a necessary escalation of tactics toward Iran. In a statement on the legislation, AIPAC announced, "Iran poses a growing threat to the United States and our allies as it continues rapidly advancing toward a nuclear weapons capability. Sanctions are having an impact on Iran, but more needs to be done now to persuade Tehran to change course."

    Pressure from AIPAC and similar groups weighed heavily in some members' decisions to support the legislation, according to Jim Fine, legislative secretary for foreign policy for the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL). He added that the force of the lobbyists sometimes took the place of careful consideration.

    "In some cases, members clearly signed on without reading or understanding the implications of what they were signing on to, in part because the resolution's supporters presented it as nothing more than an incremental increase in sanctions against Iran and stressed that nothing in the resolution authorized the use of force against Iran - a red herring, since a nonbinding resolution never authorizes anything," Fine told Truthout. "But even when they understood the resolution's implications and didn't agree with them, some offices reported they were receiving so many emails and phone calls urging them to cosponsor, they didn't feel they could refuse."

    Yet, just as the bill was poised to sail through the House, another lobbying effort staged a counterattack. A widespread coalition of peace groups, religious organizations, Iranian Americans and Jewish Americans coordinated phone-ins, email campaigns and visits to Congressional offices. They stressed that, though the language of the bill may imply that it simply strengthens sanctions, it actually could only be implemented by military means.

    Prominent military experts and military personnel concurred with the grassroots movement, and made their voices heard.

    "The blockade is not a step short of war; it is war. It virtually guarantees military confrontation causing unnecessary casualties on both sides," stated University of Minnesota Professor Cyrus Bina and Col. Sam Gardiner (ret.) in an early July op-ed, in the Washington Times.

    The sponsors of 362, Congressmen Gary Ackerman and Mike Pence, responded to the accusations of activists and experts in a letter to their colleagues, stating, "These assertions are absolutely false and, frankly, utter nonsense."

    But military experts continued to challenge 362. Vice Admiral Jack Shanahan, US Navy (ret.); Dr. Lawrence Korb, former assistant secretary of defense, and Lt. Gen. Robert G. Gard Jr. (ret.) responded to the sponsors' retorts in a letter to House members. "Despite the protestations of its sponsors, we believe that implementation of inspections of this nature could not be accomplished without a blockade or the use of force... Without a Security Council Resolution, implementation of these measures could be construed as an act of war," they wrote.

    Meanwhile, grassroots efforts crescendoed, with thousands of messages sent to Congress about the resolution. National advocacy organizations' alerts were picked up by local groups, prompting an unusually large number of constituents to request personal meetings with their representatives, according to Fine.

    Congress's response was unprecedented: five co-sponsors officially withdrew their names from the bill, while several more, including Wexler, voiced firm opposition to the bill's current language and vowed to push for changes.

    "None of us at FCNL can remember another time when five members withdrew from a resolution they had agreed to cosponsor," Fine said.

    It is also unusual for cosponsors of a bill to belatedly object to a substantial component of it - especially in an election year. Co-sponsor Congressman Barney Frank, who now opposes the resolution as it stands, even admitted to constituents that he'd made a mistake.

    "I agree that this should not be our policy, and I regret the fact that I did not read this resolution more carefully," Frank wrote in a letter to an activist with Peace Action. "I'm going to consult with the authors to see if a change can be made that would omit this language, and if they are unwilling to do that, I will make very clear my disagreement with this in the most appropriate form. I apologize again for not having read this more carefully."

    Ackerman has vowed to resume pushing for 362's passage later in the year, saying that the resolution continues to gain support among others in Congress. However, the past few months' backlash will make a renewed effort more difficult, according to Parsi - especially since grassroots groups are not giving up.

    "There will likely be other attempts, but I don't think it is likely that language calling for a blockade - i.e. war - will pass easily," Parsi said. "We are prepared to work with all parties to make sure that a new and more constructive policy on Iran is put together that effectively meets the Iranian challenge."

    In a broad sense, the rejection of H.Con.Res.362 paves the way for a new outlook on Iran, according to Fine. He points to the National Intelligence Estimate report released in December 2007, which encouraged diplomacy with Iran, as a guidepost for governmental action.

    "Engaging with Iran to try to resolve dangerous conflict is common sense," Fine said. "Five former US secretaries of state have just repeated their call for direct talks with Iran, including Henry Kissinger, who says talks should begin at the secretary of state level. Congress is beginning to hear the message."