In an ill-advised piece of legislation, Congress is using opposition to Iran as an excuse to attack President Obama's executive authority.
The "Iran Threat Reduction Act" (HR1905), passed on Nov. 2 by the House Foreign Relations Committee, neither reduces an Iranian threat nor puts significant pressure on Iran's leaders to change policies.
The bill would make it illegal for any American diplomat to speak to or have any contact with an Iranian official unless the president certifies to Congress that not talking to the Iranian officials "would pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the vital national security interests of the United States" 15 days prior to that contact.
Minnesota cosponsors of this bill are GOP Reps. Michele Bachmann, Chip Cravaack, John Kline and Erik Paulsen.
A corresponding bill has been introduced in the Senate (S1048), cosponsored by Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, both Democrats.
In addition to tying the president's hands on diplomacy, the bill also prevents the president from issuing waivers to existing Iran trade sanctions for any reason, singling out the sale of vital airplane parts for civilian aircraft.
Iran's civilian air fleet is aging, and without replacement parts, air travel on Iranian carriers poses a danger to the public, including American citizens who travel to Iran.
The largest group to be affected is the more than 1 million Iranian-Americans who regularly travel to Iran. This bill puts their lives in danger; it punishes the public, not the Iranian leaders.
Additional provisions in the bill will result in a rise of oil prices worldwide, eventually hurting U.S. consumers.
These two bills have been introduced by parties who are angry at Obama for his pledge to improve relations with Iran after his 2008 election, repudiating the policies of the Bush era.
They want to punish him for his early stance even though his policies toward Iran are now virtually the same as Bush's. Clearly a bonus for Republican supporters of the bill are the limitations it places on the president's independence in conducting foreign affairs.
Many powerful groups in Washington lobbied for this bill, including the American Israel Public Affairs Council (AIPAC) and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). These organizations are dedicated to making certain that the United States and Iran never achieve formal relations.
The United States has paid a serious price by not maintaining diplomatic contact with Iran for more than four decades. Iran's actions have been irksome, but the inability to even talk with Iranian officials has deepened misunderstanding.
As a result, even small disputes that would be easily resolved under normal diplomatic contact become tangled and threatening.
A recent example was the case of "hikers" imprisoned in Iran for straying over the border from Iraq without proper documentation. Had the United States had a diplomatic presence in Iran, these prisoners would at least have had recourse to diplomatic contact, and an active advocate.
As it was, the U.S. could only sit on this side of the Atlantic and issue meaningless public statements expressing hope for their release.
Preventing American officials from contact with Iran also precludes discussion of any issue at all, including matters of intense mutual interest such as control of drug smuggling; environmental disasters such as earthquakes; military emergencies or acts of war.
It also prevents the United States from having trained diplomatic observers in Iran to take the pulse of political and social affairs -- an essential element of national intelligence. An extreme application of the law would prevent American officials from even greeting Iranian officials at international gatherings, such as at the United Nations or in the capitals of third nations.
This bill sets an extraordinarily bad precedent. If Congress is able to restrict the executive branch regarding contacts with Iran, theoretically it could set the same restrictions for any country in the future. The action is unprecedented in U.S. history.
Not even during the Cold War did Congress try to restrict the ability of the president and his representatives from contact with foreign powers -- even America's most potent enemies -- the Soviet Union and Communist China.
The bill now proceeds to the full House for a vote. If it passes, which is likely, it will proceed to the Senate. It can only be hoped that the Senate leaders see the danger in this unwise legislation, and either kill the bill or modify it significantly.
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William O. Beeman is professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota and past president of the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association. He has worked in Iran and the Middle East for more than 40 years. He is author of "The 'Great Satan' vs. the 'Mad Mullahs': How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other."