Six weeks ago, an array of sanctions against Russia, to be added to penalties being debated on Iran, won near-unanimous bipartisan support in the U.S. Senate, with Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) and Rand Paul (R-Ky) the only dissenting voices. The package became stalled in the House of Representatives because the Trump administration asked for more flexibility in its relationship with Russia.
The stall ended last Thursday evening when the Senate passed a bipartisan bill that might well serve to alienate U.S. allies and isolate the United States. Senators voted 98-2 to apply new sanctions to Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Sanders and Paul were again the only dissenters. The bill passed in the House 419-3 and included a provision that permits Congress to block any effort by President Trump to ease existing sanctions on Russia.
Sanctions bills against U.S. adversaries typically move through Congress uncontested and on a bipartisan basis.
The bill understandably has the enthusiastic backing of Democrats, who feel that Vladimir Putin should be punished for his 2016 U.S. presidential election interference. Because several of the meetings between Trump administration members and Russian officials are thought to have discussed sanctions relief, coverage of the Trump-Russia brouhaha has overshadowed any discussions about how U.S. allies might respond to new sanctions.
It comes as no surprise that Putin’s response was to expel more than 700 American diplomats and staffers. The new sanctions were seen by many as follow-up to the Magnitsky Act of 2012, named after the Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was tortured to death after exposing a massive tax fraud by Moscow officials.
The Russian sanctions have created concern for the European Union, which is upset that the U.S lawmakers are threatening to undo its regional energy policy. The sanctions may be mostly symbolic moves for Congress, but they are very real to Europeans who do business with neighboring Russia.
The EU has indicated that its members will retaliate. The French government, which has faced its own election interference by Putin, has spoken out about the sanctions, saying that they appear to violate international law, and that the EU would have to respond. Sen. John McCain, one of the leading champions of Russian sanctions, says that it is the job of the EU to come around to the legislation, not vice versa.
The sanctions against Iran and North Korea are an attempt to curtail their ballistic missile tests and other hostile activities. In the case of Iran, they threaten to jeopardize
the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, a landmark foreign policy achievement of President Obama’s, negotiated not only with European allies, but also with Russia and China. The Trump administration has levied its own sanctions against Iran, but has certified that Iran is complying with the nuclear deal. Tehran is believed to be seeking to create a “Shia corridor” running from Iran across Iraq to Syria, where Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite Shia sect have Russian backing, and then on to southern Lebanon, which is under Shia Hezbollah control.
The U.S. legislation imposes restrictions on anyone involved with Iran’s ballistic missile program and those who do business with them. They also apply to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGG). Slavishly loyal to the Supreme Leader, the IRGG has a long history of meddling in 14 neighboring states. Its operations in support of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, for example, include the use of chemical weapons on innocents. Because the IRGG has become the source of so much misery internationally, Iran continues as a major state sponsor of terrorism.
No-one really knows what the North Korean sanctions will do. In reaction to the U.S. measures enacted last Thursday, Pyongyang conducted on Friday its latest test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), describing it as a “stern warning” for the United States. It came three weeks after its first ICBM test; leader Kim Jong-un declared that the test demonstrated his regime’s ability to launch “at any place and time” and proved that “the entire U.S. was within striking range.” To maintain peace in the world, Pyongyang’s nuclear program must be verified as soon as feasible. One option might be for Beijing to monitor it if this can be achieved.
President Trump has now indicated that he will sign the bill. Perhaps the entire initiative needs to be stalled again and re-thought, given that sanctions don’t generally work unless there is the kind of pressure applied by many governments on Iran before the nuclear negotiations could begin productively. Usually, sanctions harm populations rather than perpetrators and are more political ploys than practical solutions to destructive behavior. America’s allies are unlikely to follow its lead on any of this. Destabilization of North Korea could result in war, with the United States dropping the first bomb.
David Kilgour, a lawyer by profession, served in Canada’s House of Commons for almost 27 years. In Jean Chretien’s Cabinet, he was secretary of state (Africa and Latin America) and secretary of state (Asia-Pacific). He is the author of several books and co-author with David Matas of “Bloody Harvest: The Killing of Falun Gong for Their Organs.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.