After Review Period, Further Congressional Obstruction on Iran

congress imgWhile the Congressional Review Period for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) ended September 17 and the parties prepare to implement the nuclear deal, the debate in Congress has continued on. On Thursday, the House of Representatives passed one bill threatening the deal, which received a veto threat from the Obama administration, and in the Senate Democrats introduced legislation that risks complicating implementation of the deal.

In the House, the “Justice for Victims of Iranian Terrorism Act” received a vote on the floor and passed 251-173. The bill would block sanctions relief under the JCPOA until Iran pays all fines levied against it by U.S. courts, a total of roughly $43.5 billion for incidents including the Iran Hostage Crisis, Beirut Embassy bombing and even the September 11, 2001 attacks. Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-PA) introduced the bill calling for “not one cent” to be released to Iran until the families of victims are compensated by Iran.

However, the bill was opposed by some Democrats who had disapproved of the nuclear deal, including the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY). He was joined in his opposition on the floor by pro-deal stalwarts including Reps. Gerry Connolly (D-VA), Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who warned about the danger of killing the nuclear deal and the fact that the legislation would not accomplish what it set out to do. Rep. Engel stated that he will not support the bill as it is “not really about helping victims,” but rather “it’s about exploiting their plight and their tragedy to make a political splash.” He went on to warn against turning the debate on the Iran deal into a replay of the debate over the Affordable Care Act, in which House Republicans futilely voted dozens of times to revoke the health care legislation before it died in the Senate.

The Senate is expected to block the bill, and any similar partisan votes, for the foreseeable future. During a Senate Banking Committee hearing Thursday, the same legislation that passed the House was incorporated into a bill related to domestic crude oil sales via an amendment from Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA). However, the measure does not have support among Senate Democrats, who can block it if it comes up on the Senate floor. As Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) stated, the insertion of the Iran amendment “kills the bill,” dooming it to failure.

As the debate on the Iran bill played out in the House, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and eight other Democrats introduced the “Iran Policy Oversight Act of 2015,” which they billed as an effort to “strengthen the Iran deal.” While seven of the Democrats sponsoring the bill supported the agreement, the legislation includes provisions that could prove controversial and provoke a reaction from Iran. The legislation underlines the threat of U.S. military action against Iran, authorizes the President to provide offensive military weaponry to Israel to counter Iran, and establishes a mechanism for the expedited consideration of sanctions legislation for issues outside of the nuclear sphere. While watered down from previous versions, the bill is likely to elicit opposition both from those concerned about the bill’s effects on implementation of the nuclear deal as well as staunch opponents of the deal who might argue the bill doesn’t go far enough.

Thursday was also a busy day for Iran policy at the UN General Assembly, where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the podium and dedicated nearly his entire speech to warning against the nuclear deal and tentative opening to Iran. Seeking to draw parallels between ISIS and Iran, he asked whether the world would “let ISIS enrich uranium” and engage in other nuclear activities. In addition to demonizing Iran and addressing the country as ISIS’ peer, Netanyahu expressed his determination to defend Israel against Iran with or without the UN’s support, and glowered silently at the assembled delegates for the better part of a minute for the international community’s alleged inaction in the face of Iranian threats. The Israeli Prime Minister is slated to visit Washington in November, this time at the invitation of President Obama.

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