Sanctions: Yea or Nay? An Issue in Senate Race

Iran sanctions — indeed President Barack Obama's whole approach to the nuclear threat posed by Tehran — has emerged as a thorny issue in the Pennsylvania race for the U.S. Senate.

Republican hopeful Pat Toomey has ripped into both U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak (D-District 7) — the two lawmakers competing in next year's Democratic primary –for failing to push for a new round of sanctions as talks have faltered. Both Specter and Sestak have voiced support for the current diplomatic process.

"The administration's approach has proven to be really useless," said Toomey, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Allentown. "They have got a backwards approach," he said, suggesting that sanctions should be applied first and later withdrawn if Iran comes clean on its nuclear program.

A Letter Was Sent
Last month, Toomey sent a letter to both Sestak and Specter asking why neither had co-sponsored the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act and the Iran Refined Sanctions Petroleum Act.

Both the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and the Jewish Federations of North America have made passing both bills a high priority. Yet unlike U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) the senior senator has been largely silent on sanctions.

Specter has long advocated engagement with Iran and Syria and said that if Libya can rejoin the family of nations, anything is possible. Even as the administration has appeared to lose some patience with Iran since it reneged on a tentative agreement to ship some of its uranium to another country for enrichment, Specter seems as focused as ever on dialogue.

"I believe in diplomacy and negotiations and I want to keep working at it," Specter said in a recent interview, adding that he has been pushing — so far unsuccessfully –to set up a meeting with Iranian officials and parliamentarians.

A December Deadline
Obama has set December as the deadline for Iran to decide whether it is serious about diplomacy.

On Oct. 15, the House passed the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act, which would authorize state and local governments — and their pension funds — to divest from companies doing business with Iran's energy sector. Sestak hadn't co-sponsored the bill, but backed it when it came up for a floor vote.

Two weeks later, the House Foreign Relations Committee passed the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, which would strengthen the president's authority to sanction companies that help Iran import or produce refined petroleum. A day later, the Senate Banking Committee approved a combined version of those two bills.

Specter said that signing on as a sponsor "doesn't advance the ball," but that if it came to a vote, he would definitely "not vote no."

For his part, Sestak said he had both philosophical and procedural reasons for holding back on further legislation.

"It's not the right time yet," said Sestak, indicating that he didn't want Congress to be seen as undermining Obama's diplomatic efforts.

"Will it be in December? Maybe." 



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