Yesterday the Senate passed a slightly amended version of a House bill designed to limit Iran’s dealings and interests in the Western Hemisphere. The bill, H.R.3783, the “Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act of 2012” calls for a plan that would, among other things, “address any efforts by foreign persons, entities, and governments in the region to assist Iran in evading United States and international sanctions” and

support United States efforts to designate persons and entities in the Western Hemisphere for proliferation activities and terrorist activities relating to Iran, including affiliates of the IRGC, its Qods Force, and Hezbollah, under applicable law including the International Emergency Economic Powers Act; and

 (D) to address the vital national security interests of the United States in ensuring energy supplies from the Western Hemisphere that are free from the influence of any foreign government that would attempt to manipulate or disrupt global energy markets.

The historic trajectory out of which the legislation emerges is clear in the first two sections under the “Findings” (background):

Congress finds the following:

(1) The United States has vital political, economic, and security interests in the Western Hemisphere.

(2) Iran is pursuing cooperation with Latin American countries by signing economic and security agreements in order to create a network of diplomatic and economic relationships to lessen the blow of international sanctions and oppose Western attempts to constrict its ambitions.

In other words, the members of Congress who have passed this legislation want Iran to stay out of “our little region over here” as U.S. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson referred to the Western Hemisphere in 1945. Such policies go back to the Monroe Doctrine, which declared the Western Hemisphere to be exclusively the United States’ sphere of influence. Apparently the U.S. Congress did not get the memo that even the Council on Foreign Relations considers the Monroe Doctrine to be dead- an anachronistic framework for an age in which Latin America has found a new independence from the United States and increasingly seeks out business and political arrangements with countries such as China and India.

The implication is that the U.S.’ interests trump those of its neighbors. Iran is a major oil producer, and various countries in the Western Hemisphere may want to do business with Iran because of their energy needs. Some also have commercial relationships with Iran because it is a sizeable export market for their goods, or other reasons. This is especially important for countries such as Bolivia when their trade preferences with the U.S. are cut off for political motives. The energy market motivation is one that the U.S. government should understand well, since it continues to adapt its foreign policy to its energy needs, routinely allowing U.S. businesses to do business with countries that the U.S. considers hostile to its interests (a subsidiary company of then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s former employer, Halliburton, did business with Iran despite sanctions, for example). But there is another standard for Latin American countries, whose very dealings with Iran help make them suspect in the eyes of Congress.

The bill states:

Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela expressed their intention to assist Iran in evading sanctions by signing a statement supporting Iran's nuclear activities and announcing at a 2010 joint press conference in Tehran their determination to `continue and expand their economic ties to Iran' with confidence that `Iran can give a crushing response to the threats and sanctions imposed by the West and imperialism'.

What this does not note is that the support expressed by these governments was for “peaceful use” of Iran’s nuclear energy program, which Iran is entitled to pursue under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). It is also important to note that the key authority on this topic – the International Atomic Energy Agency – “has never determined that Iran is building nuclear weapons.”

The U.S. has previously sanctioned a number of energy companies for continuing to do business with Iran, including Venezuelan state oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), along with Singaporean, Monacan and Israeli companies, among others. A new GAO report, however, found “insufficient reports to classify [PDVSA] as active or withdrawn” regarding ongoing business with Iran.

In order to justify the “threats to United States interests” and allies, the legislation cites the supposed October 2011 assassination plot against a Saudi ambassador that New York Times reporters described as sounding “like a rejected Quentin Tarantino script,” and “B-movie clumsy.” Similar characterizations were even shared by FBI Director Robert Mueller, and numerous experts and analysts – including from the Congressional Research Service and the Rand Corporation – publicly doubted the plot’s veracity. But such outlandish ideas are par for the course for some of the bill’s early co-sponsors, such as Reps. Michele Bachmann, or Connie Mack, who has made hyperbole and conspiracy theories about Latin America a trademark.

This move by Congress will certainly promote bad relations between the U.S. and Latin America, continuing a trend that has gone on for the past decade, throughout both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.  Although the Obama administration could take steps to counter this hostility from Congress, there is not much indication that it will.