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Kirk urges greater U.S. pressure on Iran as new sanctions start to bite

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 8, 2012 - WASHINGTON - With Iran's currency losing more than a third of its value in recent weeks and its government wracked by internal struggles, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., is urging the White House to keep tightening U.S. sanctions that aim to curb Iran's nuclear weapons program. Kirk, the co-author of a tough new Iran sanctions measure that Congress approved in December and became law this month, said, "The world's oil and currency markets took the [U.S. Senate's] 100-0 vote as a crippling move against Iran's currency. And it's been falling ever since."

But Kirk told the Beacon that he worried about the Obama administration's intent to enforce those sanctions aggressively -- as well as to project military strength in the face of Iran's recent saber-rattling threats related to oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz and blocking the future presence of U.S. aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf.

"It would be a mistake, but I worry that the president may exile aircraft carriers from the Gulf until after the [November] election," said Kirk, a Naval Reserve intelligence commander. "If he makes that decision, it would be a tremendous sign of weakness and would undermine the confidence of our allies in confronting Iran."

Kirk, who coauthored the Iran sanctions amendment with Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., also complained that Obama "sent a very confusing, damaging signal" on the sanctions at the time he signed the defense bill that included them. "When he signed the bill, he said the Menendez-Kirk amendment was advisory only. It is not," Kirk said.

"I think the president risks facing overwhelming and adamant opposition in the Senate, should he make the grievous national security and political mistake of treating that law, now enacted, as somehow advisory."

The Kirk-Menendez provision would bar any U.S. financial institution from dealing with Iran's central bank -- or with any financial institution doing business with that bank. In theory, the sanctions eventually collapse Iran's central bank and force the nation's economy into a barter system for international transactions. The provision makes humanitarian exceptions for medicine, food and medical equipment and also allows the president to suspend the sanctions if there are national security concerns.

While Obama in theory accepted the provision this month when he signed the defense bill, he issued a statement saying that he would "treat the provisions as non-binding" if he found that they "conflict with my constitutional authorities." His administration had opposed the Menendez-Kirk amendment -- the latest in a series of punitive U.S. economic measures -- because of fears that they might upset world oil markets and hurt average Iranian families. Iran exports 2.5 million barrels of oil each day, mainly to Asia and Europe, and needs to make international financial transactions to do so.

Vali Nasr, an expert on Iran and the Islamic world and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, warned recently that the intensified economic sanctions are leading to "a significant escalation of tension between the United States and Iran and the start of a more dangerous phase in the West's attempt to curtail Iran's nuclear program."

But Dennis Ross, a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who until recently was a special assistant to the National Security Council, views sanctions -- and not military intervention -- as the best way to pressure Iran.

"Iran is vulnerable, and over the next few months joint efforts with the Europeans to stop buying Iranian oil and doing business with the Iranian Central Bank would dramatically add to the pressure Iran's leaders are already feeling," Ross wrote in an op-ed in late December. "These two steps would mean a loss of revenue and further destabilization of Iran's already shaky currency -- consequences that Iran's leaders can ill afford."

Iranians Feel Bite of Sanctions

While Iranians have been dealing for years with the impact of various sanctions -- including inflation, a slowed economy and unemployment -- the precipitous decline of the nation's currency in recent weeks has heightened internal political dissent.

Kirk, who had been pressing for the new approach to Iran sanctions ever since his election to Obama's former Senate seat in late 2010, attributed the sharp decline in Iran's currency to the Senate's 100-0 vote on Dec. 1 to adopt the sanctions.

"Right after that unanimous Senate vote -- by the way, over the objections of the administration -- the value of the Iranian currency began to fall quickly," Kirk said. "That currency has now suffered a further drop, with the president signing the defense bill, which included the Iran sanctions, on New Year's Day."

But Kirk said Obama needs to keep up the pressure by fully implementing the Kirk-Menendez sanctions, which would pressure the Iranian economy even more as the months go by. The hardship on Iran's businesses and consumers is likely to step up pressure on the government, which already has been weakened by disputes among the nation's hard-line political and religious leaders.

Iran has threatened to retaliate against new economic sanctions on Iran's oil exports by blocking the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz, through which one-fifth of the world's oil supply is transported. The Iranian Navy has been conducting naval exercises, and its military chief warned that a U.S. aircraft carrier that recently left the Gulf may face Iranian resistance if it tries to return to the Gulf.

That, in turn, led to a U.S. Navy spokesman to issue a statement: "Anyone who threatens to disrupt freedom of navigation in an international strait is clearly outside the community of nations; any disruption will not be tolerated."

Kirk said the Pentagon should not be cowed by such threats and should continue its tradition of rotating aircraft carriers through the Gulf on a regular basis.

"Because of the threat, all of our allies -- such as Kuwait and especially Bahrain, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar -- will now be counting the days between the time of the [Iranian] threat and whenever a U.S. aircraft carrier shows up," Kirk said.

"I worry that if we do not go back into the Gulf, we will confirm the fears of our allies that we are weak."

Because a U.S. carrier would only operate in international waters, Kirk said, its presence would not be an act of war -- but an Iranian attack on that carrier would be. "It would be a tremendous military mistake on their part because in any potential conflict, the Iranian Navy would not last a long weekend in a battle with the U.S. Navy.

"Far more importantly, an unprovoked attack by Iran against the U.S. would be on the political order of idiocy of [Japan's 1941 attack on] Pearl Harbor. It would rally the American people to the cause."

Of course, the goal of the sanctions is to convince Iran to curb its capabilities to build nuclear weapons. Kirk said he believes "Iran is moving toward building a uranium-powered nuclear weapon, but it does not have one yet. I think Iran correctly feels that any country that has nuclear weapons cannot be attacked by the U.S."

While Iran does not yet have the capability to deliver a nuclear weapon via long-range missiles, Kirk said that does not mean there is no threat to the U.S. "Remember, you can deliver a nuclear weapon in multiple ways," including "clandestinely, through a terrorist organization. And Iran backs a number of them, principally Hezbollah and Hamas."

Iran Sanctions Backed by Most of Local Delegation

While they disagree on many issues, Republican and Democratic lawmakers tend to back U.S. sanctions to curb Iran's nuclear weapons development.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said this week that he has argued for years that "we need to impose stronger sanctions on Iran as long as it continues developing its nuclear capability. I'm very hopeful the people of Iran understand that its government's pursuit of this nuclear capability and its support of terrorist activities around the world are responsible for creating these economic challenges."

Start of update: Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., also has been a strong supporter of sanctions. "I have supported tough sanctions, which are an important tool to dissuade the Iranian regime from their dangerous pursuit of nuclear weapons, and it's clear they're working," McCaskill said in a statement. "The leaders of Iran have a choice to make: They can continue down this dangerous road and face the economic consequences of isolation, or they can stop threatening their neighbors, abandon their nuclear efforts, come back to the table, and start providing for the real needs of their people." End update

Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, said in a statement to the Beacon that he backs "strong comprehensive sanctions against the current Iranian regime to persuade them to abandon their reckless and dangerous pursuit of nuclear weapons. I have constantly spoken out for human rights and against the brutality and oppression of the cruel leaders in Tehran, and I will continue to strongly oppose Iran's obvious efforts to develop a nuclear weapon and the means to deliver it."

Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has backed targeted U.S. sanctions on Iran's regime, but he also says it is crucial for the United States to "continue to work in concert with the international community to hold the regime accountable."

"I'm proud of the tough sanctions we've placed on Iran to create pressure for change, but unilateral actions by the United States will only go so far to curb Iranian calculations," Carnahan said. "With the passage of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929, as well as sanctions laws in the European Union, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Norway, we have come further than ever before in achieving unity among our international partners regarding policy toward Iran."

In a statement to the Beacon, Carnahan continued: "Tehran's non-compliance with nuclear obligations, support for terrorism in the Middle East, and brutal human rights abuses of its own people are destabilizing factors throughout the region and profoundly impact the national security interests of the United States and our allies."

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.