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July 25, 2008

Foreign Affairs Committee Approves 123 Agreement with Conditions

On Thursday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved HR 6574, a bill that grants Congressional approval for the proposed “123” US-Russia nuclear agreement if Russia certifiably halts nuclear cooperation with Iran.

The bill sets specific conditions on the 123 agreement’s implementation. According to section 201, the President must certify that Russia has sought to “prohibit, terminate and prevent the transfer of goods, services, and technology” to Iran for use in nuclear, biological or chemical weapons or ballistic missile programs. The bill provides an exception to this rule, permitting Russian support for the Bushehr nuclear reactor, which the Bush administration defends as a nonproliferation safeguard. It further stipulates that during the past year Russia must have had “no cooperation” with Iran.

Yet, the bill provides the President with “alternative certification” criteria which can be used if evidence confirms that Russian-Iranian cooperation has existed in the past year, said Chairman Howard Berman (D-CA), the sponsor of the bill. Those conditions require that Russia has “terminated any significant cooperation,” “instituted effective measures to prevent [its] recurrence,” and “prosecuted any Russian national” who cooperated with Iran in the areas of concern.

The President may only use this alternative method of certification for two consecutive years. After that time, Russia must have fully severed any banned cooperation with Iran in order to meet the conditions for Congress’ continuing approval of the 123 agreement.

Further conditions require Presidential certification of Russia’s cooperation with UN sanctions on Iran and satisfactory “Russian liability protections for US civil nuclear industries.”

HR 6574 also changes the procedure for Congressional consideration of future 123 agreements. Under current regulations, Congress has 90 days of continuous session to review 123 agreements, after which they automatically go into effect (although Congress may block them with a resolution of disapproval during that time frame). Under the new proposal, future 123 agreements would have to be explicitly approved by a joint resolution of Congress in order to go into effect.

Committee members offered no amendments to the bill.

President Bush originally submitted the US-Russia 123 agreement to Congress on May 13 but the current session will expire before the required 90-day review period has elapsed. Because Congress will not have the full review time, congressional inaction in this session would kill the agreement and necessitate its re-submission to Congress in the next session.

Congressman Brad Sherman (D-CA) emphasized the need for Congress to take action on the 123 agreement in this session, despite the allotted review period falling short of the 90-day requirement. In his view, Congress should have to actively approve these deals, as the new regulations in HR 6574 would require, because the issue is too important to leave to the “vagaries of the legislative calendar.”

Both the Bush administration and the State Department have heavily endorsed the 123 agreement as an incentive for Russia to fully participate in international efforts to pressure Iran. Nonetheless, it has met with opposition from some Members of Congress concerned about providing this incentive before verifying that Russian-Iranian nuclear cooperation has ended.

According to committee members, H.R. 6574 provides a safe and thorough compromise that reconciles diverging opinions by setting conditions on the agreement’s implementation. During the markup, Ranking Member Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), the bill’s original co-sponsor, applauded the bill as “bipartisan” legislation that “balances competing interests.”

The bill was voted out of committee by voice vote and is expected to be considered by the full House before Congress adjourns on September 26.

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