Cliff May

In the film version of “Charlie Wilson’s War,” the rich and sexy political activist Joanne Herring asks the eponymous representative from Texas: “Why is Congress saying one thing and doing nothing?” Wilson deadpans: “Well, tradition mostly.”

So when Congress breaks with tradition and actually says something and then goes on to do something both bold and consistent -- that should not go unremarked.

Last week, in a rare display of bipartisanship, Congress passed legislation imposing tough sanctions on the Islamist regime that rules Iran. In the Senate, the vote was 99 to 0. (Senator Robert Byrd didn’t vote; the 92-year-old politician passed away on Monday). In the House, the tally was an overwhelming 408 to 8, with 17 members not voting.

This, too, was unusual: The legislation was strengthened in conference committee, where members of the Senate and the House come together to “reconcile” their separate bills – to meld them into one. Generally, bills get watered down in conference as members settle for common denominators. This time loopholes were closed and legislative teeth were sharpened.

The next step: President Obama needs to sign the bill (it’s expected he will) and then forcefully implement it (less certain). The sanctions will not cut off food or medicine to ordinary Iranians. They will target Iran’s oil and natural gas riches – the lifeblood of the regime – and stem the flow of gasoline to Iran. Although Iran is among the world’s major oil producers, it must import large quantities of gasoline because its rulers have built centrifuges to enrich uranium for nuclear bombs rather than refineries to produce fuel for cars and trucks.

Obama would be well-advised, also, to address the Iranian people, making it absolutely clear that even as this punishment is imposed, his hand remains outstretched, awaiting Iranian leaders who don't want to break his thumbs.

Will sanctions, applied seriously, cause the regime to change its behavior – or cause Iranians to change the regime? No one knows. What we can say with certainty: This is the last peaceful means to that end, the only way left, short of military force, to do something about Iranian despots who are sorely oppressing their population at home, sponsoring terrorists abroad, facilitating the killing of Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan, building nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them, threatening Israel with genocide, allying with America’s enemies in Latin America, and vowing that a “world without America … is attainable.” This is, without question, the most serious national security threat of the 21st century. Passivity and appeasement should not be an option.

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.