Ayotte Pushes for New Iran Sanctions in Must-Pass Defense Bill

Sen-AyotteWashington, DC – Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) is leading a group of 19 Senate Republicans who plan to attach new Iran sanctions legislation to an annual Defense bill currently being debated, representing the latest salvo against the Iran deal from Congressional hawks. 

The amendment, which mirrors legislation Ayotte introduced earlier this year, would cut entire sectors of Iran’s economy off from the international economy. Notably, the legislation would deputize outside groups, many of whom spent millions to oppose the Iran deal, to have a formal role in overseeing the U.S. government’s work in applying the sanctions. 

Ayotte’s proposal, which would sanction sectors of Iran’s economy that are found to play any role in developing or procuring technology that could be used in Iran’s ballistic missile program, could potentially target everything from Iran’s telecommunications sector to its universities. As a result, it would likely eliminate any practical economic benefits for Iran under the nuclear accord.  

The amendment would also extend the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA), which includes many of the nuclear-related sanctions that are currently being suspended as part of the Iran nuclear deal and is set to expire at year’s end. Under the nuclear agreement, most ISA sanctions are required to be suspended for the first eight years of the agreement and then fully repealed by 2023, but Ayotte’s legislation would keep the sanctions intact until 2031. The fifteen-year reauthorization would break from past renewals of the ISA, which have been for five-year periods. The Obama administration has signaled its hesitation over any ISA extension, particularly considering the fact that it has the authority to snap-back ISA-related sanctions even without such an extension. 

Ayotte, one of a handful of hawkish Senators fighting in tough reelection battles this year, strongly opposed the nuclear agreement and has supported past efforts to block and undermine the diplomatic agreement. Her amendment, if passed, would likely be to unravel the deal and bring the U.S. and Iran back on the path of conflict.

Additional Iran-related amendments have also been filed for the Defense bill. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), the Majority Whip, has offered an amendment that would require the President to report on whether Iran violated international law in detaining American sailors after they entered Iranian waters and even implies the U.S. may have bribed Iran to release American prisoners. If the administration determines that Iran did violate international law, the Cornyn measure would force sanctions on the actors involved. The bill appears aimed at stirring up controversy over the release of the sailors and imprisoned Americans, who were secured through diplomatic channels between the U.S. and Iran. Other Iran-related amendments could seek to block defense contracts for companies doing business with designated Iranian entities and target Iran’s Mahan airline.

Senate Democrats have been united in blocking “poison pill” amendments designed to undermine the Iran deal. Most recently, Senator Tom Cotton (R-AK) – author of an infamous letter to Iran’s supreme leader during the nuclear negotiations last year – attempted to block U.S. purchases of heavy water that Iran was required to relinquish under the deal. That measure delayed passage of a spending bill for energy and water programs because Democrats accused Cotton of working to kill the nuclear accord. 

A similar fight took place in the House over their version of the legislation, with Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) and Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) adding their own amendments echoing Cotton’s effort. Their amendments passed in partisan votes but the must-pass bill was subsequently defeated. It is unclear how House leadership intends to move forward with the bill, and whether they will seek another vote with the controversial Iran amendments included. However, their adoption foreshadows a rocky appropriation process with opponents of the JCPOA seeking to re-litigate the fight over the Iran deal at every opportunity.

The amendments from Ayotte and Cornyn could be brought to the floor as early as the week of June 6 for a vote as debate continues on the defense bill. A full summary and analysis of the Ayotte proposal is available here.

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