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Analysis: The Truth about H.Con.Res. 362

By Patrick Disney (source: NIAC)


For months, supporters of H.Con.Res. 362 have defended themselves against critics who argue that the bill poses a serious risk of escalating the conflict between the U.S. and Iran.  Views among members of Congress and the foreign policy community, however, remain varied about the actual ramifications of the bill's passage.  Some in Congress have defended the recommendations the resolution puts forth, and have pressed for Congress to adopt it. 


However, several of the bill's cosponsors (four of whom have since withdrawn their cosponsorship) have openly stated that the resolution's blockade language must be removed in order for them to support it.  Other cosponsors have even lobbied Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership not to allow the measure to come up for a vote on the House floor, confirming the validity of the criticisms levied against the resolution. 


Nevertheless, supporters of the resolution have jumped to its defense in the hope of gaining further momentum among members of Congress.  It is important to note, however, that these supporters have frequently defended the measure in ways that do not accurately reflect the actual text of the resolution.  What follows is an analysis of the statements made to defend and support H.Con.Res. 362, compared to the actual text of the resolution.


Does H.Con.Res. 362 call for a blockade of Iran?


Despite the resolution's clause that "nothing in this resolution shall be construed as an authorization of the use of force against Iran," its recommendations will create a situation in which military action will be more likely.  The bill calls on the President to begin an international effort "prohibiting the export to Iran of all refined petroleum products."  In order to enforce such a ban, the United States would have to verify that no illicit petroleum products were reaching Iranian ports.  This would require interdicting shipments destined for Iran, which would necessitate imposing some form of a blockade.  Such a move would be universally recognized under international law as an act of war. 


Many prominent members of Congress and international lawyers agree with this interpretation.  Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts has said:

"Language in the resolution regarding Iran calls for a blockade of its naval activity I agree that this should not be our policy, and I regret the fact that I did not read this resolution more carefully."

Also, Rep. Robert Wexler of Florida stated:

"Many Americans across the country continue to express real concerns that sections of this resolution will be interpreted by President Bush as 'a green light' to use force against Iran...I believe it is essential that Congress remove the language in H. Con. Res. 362 that could lead to President Bush's unilateral imposition of a blockade on Iran."

Even a voluntary export ban (as supporters of the resolution argue was its original intent, though the language is unclear in this regard) is tantamount to a hostile action.  In 1973, when OPEC imposed a ban on shipments of petroleum to the US, Washington labeled it "an economic declaration of war." The plan offered by H.Con.Res. 362, if it were to be implemented, would be identical. 


Is H.Con.Res. 362 a prelude to war?


The recommendations put forth in this resolution are offered as an alternative to war, but they effectively pave the way for a military conflict.  Supporters of the resolution argue:

"The best way to avoid the need for military action is by imposing tough sanctions now" and "sanctions measures are an attempt to avoid war, not to start it"

But sanctions make military action more likely, not less.  History has proven that the Iranian government reacts to harsher sanctions by both increasing its repression at home and toughening its hardline foreign policies.  By offering only sticks and no carrots, this resolution will cause Tehran to dig in its heels to the point where a negotiated solution may eventually become impossible to obtain.


Despite decades of sanctions, Iran continues to gain ascendancy in the region at America's expense.  The current strategy focusing solely on economic sanctions has not elicited a change in the Iranian government's behavior.  Rather, sanctions have made Iran more steadfast in its pursuit of a nuclear program and less willing to heed the calls of the international community. 


Its supporters argue:

"It's the sense of Congress. Assertions that the resolution constitutes a declaration of war are just absurd."

Though the resolution is non-binding, the practical effect of its passage would be to declare the sense of Congress that a radically aggressive approach to Iran is preferred US policy.  A formal declaration of war notwithstanding, passage of this bill would signal to the administration and the international community that Congress would condone or even support extremely aggressive actions against Iran--up to and including military force.   


Is H.Con.Res. 362 consistent with the current international consensus?


Despite arguments to the contrary, the recommendations put forth in this bill go well beyond any current or proposed international sanctions, and will likely worsen Iran's intransigence in dealing with the international community.  As a result, the practical effect of this resolution will be to make a diplomatic resolution to this dispute less likely, not more.


The resolution demands that the President begin:                                                   

"imposing stringent inspection requirements on all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains, and cargo entering or departing Iran"

Since the "stringent inspection requirements" make no mention of specific goods to be targeted by these searches, this provision will likely punish common Iranians, rather than to serve a compelling non-proliferation interest.  Current sanctions on Iran, both those imposed by the UN Security Council and unilateral American sanctions, target Iran's nuclear and military programs, and inspections requirements for shipments entering or leaving Iran are intended to uncover illicit nuclear or dual-use technology.  The sanctions called for in this resolution are strictly punitive in nature, serve no practical security purpose, and are contrary to the established US precedent of targeting the government rather than the people.  


Supporters have argued that the resolution takes a pragmatic approach to Iran.  According to its supporters, the bill:

"Contemplates an international ban on the sale of refined petroleum products to Iran, potentially through such institutions as the UN and EU"

Actually, the bill contains no mention of the United Nations or the European Union; nor does it mention any recognized international organization as the mechanism to enforce its provisions.  The actual language of the resolution:

"Demands that the President initiate an international effort to immediately and dramatically increase the economic, political, and diplomatic pressure on Iran to verifiably suspend its nuclear enrichment activities by, inter alia, prohibiting the export to Iran of all refined petroleum products"

The bill's supporters also assert that its recommendations are provided:

"In furtherance of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1803" and its methods are "already in use by the international community, including the United States to enforce the four existing UN Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on Iran."

The measures proposed by this bill, however, are inconsistent with the current international consensus on Iran sanctions.  Current UN Security Council Resolutions call for inspections of aircraft and vessels owned or operated by Iranian state agencies "provided there are reasonable grounds" to do so.  H.Con.Res 362 goes far beyond any current or proposed sanctions by restricting civilian imports, and requiring all persons, vehicles, trains and cargo be inspected, even without any suspicion of illicit nuclear materials or dual-use technology.  Besides being egregiously impractical, such indiscriminate sanctions would drastically heighten tensions and offer no real solution to the Iranian nuclear challenge.


Furthermore, regarding the stringent inspections requirement, the bill's supporters maintain that:

"This step, like the petroleum export ban, neither mandates nor requires a naval blockade to be put into effect. The inspections called for would be done at ports of embarkation and disembarkation, not by blockade."

For shipments to Iran, the point of disembarkation is an Iranian port of entry.  Therefore, the claim that these inspections will be carried out by the international community do not hold up to scrutiny.  The Iranian customs authority performs its own inspections.  How the resolution's supporters expect to impose on Iran a program for international customs inspections at Iran's own ports of entry is unclear, and no explanation is given in the text of the resolution or in any statements made in its defense.


Statements made in defense of the resolution have not been consistent with the actual text, nor have supporters' assertions matched what foreign policy experts agree are the dire consequences of implementing these recommendations.  The timing of this move is especially problematic given that the Bush Administration is exploring new diplomatic avenues with Iran.  Both the decision to send an American envoy to the latest round of negotiations and the plan to open a diplomatic interests section in Iran indicate an increased chance of a diplomatic breakthrough.  H.Con.Res. 362 could easily reverse any progress these moves may have achieved toward that end.    


Can H.Con.Res. 362 find a solution to Iran's nuclear challenge?                                  


Across the ideological and political spectrum, nearly every expert agrees that the best hope for a solution to the problem of Iran's nuclear program must utilize both carrots and sticks--offering Iran positive incentives for cooperation and painful sanctions for intransigence.  This resolution, despite appearing to be a comprehensive solution, provides only sticks and ignores the critical need to engage with Iran directly.


Supporters of the bill have said:

"The resolution is explicit in stating that meeting the challenge from Iran must be done using all appropriate political, diplomatic and economic levers."

But the resolution makes no mention of engaging in diplomacy with Iran--the one country whose behavior the US hopes to change. This leaves the impression that "using all appropriate" diplomatic levers does not include discussing Iran's nuclear program with those who have the direct ability to alter it.  Instead, the resolution:

"Urges the President to lead a sustained, serious, and forceful effort at regional diplomacy to support the legitimate governments in the region against Iranian efforts to destabilize them, to reassure our friends and allies that the United States supports them in their resistance to Iranian efforts at hegemony"

The United States has tried talking around Iran.  History has shown that talking with our allies alone does nothing to alter Iran's behavior.  The situation today calls for solutions, not threats; ideas not bluster.  And H.Con.Res. 362 presents a backward-looking approach to an amazingly complex foreign policy challenge.  This resolution offers more of the same failed policy that has contributed to the erosion of US leverage over Iran, and risks squandering a real opportunity for a negotiated solution.

... Payvand News - 08/29/08 ... --

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