Will Congress Vote To Crash Iran's Civilian Aircraft?

November 16, 2011 2:57 pm ET — MJ Rosenberg

The Republican candidates for president are not the only politicians who use Iran and its nuclear program as a magnet for campaign dollars. The same dynamic is at play in Los Angeles, where two Democratic House members, Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, are trying to out-hawk each other on Iran in preparation for a June 2012 primary. (Their districts are being merged.)

To be fair, both Sherman and Berman, who is a former chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and now its ranking Democrat, are AIPAC stalwarts and were hardliners on Iran long before being pitted against each other in a primary.

They have both promoted "crippling" sanctions bills, which supporters argue are specifically targeted at Iranians involved in the country's nuclear program and not at Iranians in general.

But that claim cannot be made for Brad Sherman's latest AIPAC-inspired legislation, which would prevent the president from permitting the inspection and repair of U.S.-manufactured engines on Iranian civilian aircraft.

The planes in question were sold to the Iranians back in the 1970s (when the Shah was in power) and are now dangerously out of date. Current sanctions laws ban the sale of new planes and parts to Iran, but a humanitarian exception in the law permits repairs and the replacement of parts necessary to prevent civilian air crashes. It is that exception that Sherman is hell-bent on removing.

On March 16, President Obama informed Congress that he would use his authority under the law to allow Iran to repair fifteen General Motors engines used in civilian planes that were recently deemed a safety risk by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Sherman went ballistic, immediately firing off a letter to the president demanding that he not permit the planes to be repaired. He wrote:

There is no reason we should be helping the Iranians keep these planes in the air. ... Fixing these aircraft is in 180 degree opposition to our sanctions policy, which if properly implemented, would provide for Iran's increased economic and political isolation.

Sherman either overlooks or doesn't care about the one reason the United States should permit the repair of those planes: saving lives.

Flying is already dangerous for Iranians, thanks to sanctions that have prevented upkeep of the civilian fleet. In the past decade more than a thousand people have been killed in civilian air crashes. The most recent occurred in January when a Boeing 727, first used in 1974, crashed with a loss of 77 civilian passengers, including children.

According to a Christian Science Monitor report on that crash:

The aging Boeing-727 plane ... broke into pieces when it crashed near the city of Orumiyeh after dark. State television showed rescuers battling thick snow to find dozens of survivors among the 104 on board.

The crash is the latest to afflict Iran's aging fleet of aircraft, much of it delivered before the 1979 Islamic revolution and hobbled ever since by poor maintenance and a shortage of new planes and American-made spare parts due to sanctions.

President Obama, who has supported tough sanctions on Iran, clearly prefers that innocents not die in the effort to punish the Iranian regime. No doubt he imagined that his decision to waive the ban on repairing the Iranian planes would not be controversial. Who, after all, wants to see innocent people killed?

But Sherman says that punishing innocent Iranians is precisely what the United States should do, writing: "Critics [of the sanctions] argued that these measures will hurt the Iranian people. Quite frankly, we need to do just that."

It is in that spirit that he introduced — along with Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Ted Poe (R-TX), Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), Ed Royce (R-CA), Heath Shuler (D-NC) and Shelley Berkley (D-NV) — a bill to deter Obama from trying to prevent civilian air crashes in Iran.

Sherman's bill is the ugliest expression yet of this country's almost bizarre obsession with punishing the Iranian people along with its government. But it won't be the last.

In March, AIPAC will hold its annual conference, with the president and some 300-400 members of Congress likely in attendance. Like last year, and every year over the past decade, the number one item on its agenda will be targeting Iran with sanctions and making sure that bombing the country is never "off the table." (For AIPAC, diplomacy is the only thing that must stay off the table.)

No doubt Brad Sherman will hold forth about the merits of his legislation that will ensure that Iran's civilian air fleet is among the most dangerous in the world. And he will be cheered. If we are lucky, Howard Berman will respond that one can sanction Iran without crashing its planes, but perhaps not. He rarely, if ever, deviates from the AIPAC line either.

The bottom line is that our — and not just Brad Sherman's — Iran policy is nuts. Our sanctions policy in general makes little, if any, distinction between targeting the Iranian regime and targeting the Iranian people. Although most supporters of sanctions have not specifically gone after civilians, as Sherman does, few seem to care that it is civilians, and not the mullahs or the Revolutionary Guard, who suffer because of them.

This is something new in American life. The Soviet Union was the most powerful and dangerous enemy the United States ever had (neither Nazi Germany nor Imperial Japan had a nuclear arsenal). But even at the height of the Cold War, presidents like Kennedy and Reagan emphasized that it was the Soviet government that was our enemy, not the Russian people. And, it hardly need be stated, members of Congress did not suggest doing our best to encourage Aeroflot planes to fall out of the sky.

But back then there was no lobby (or campaign donors under its direction) demanding it. Today the lobby demanding sanctions and/or war against Iran is, by far, the most powerful foreign policy lobby in the history of this country. It almost always gets what it wants — even downed civilian planes. That is why AIPAC's latest sanctions package (including Sherman's plane crash provision) is likely to pass the House. It already has 349 co-sponsors.

So far, the Senate's "companion" bill does not include the Sherman language. Of course, AIPAC's conference is still five months away.