December 15, 2017

House Advances Two Iran Bills, Undermining Aircraft Sales to Iran

“In a break from reason and logic, this legislation plays directly into the hands of the President, who is desperate to find any pretext to say that Iran is in violation of the [nuclear] deal or to force Iran to walk away and thereby avoid having to take the blame of pulling the plug on the deal,” Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) stated on the floor in opposition to H.R. 4324, the “Strengthening Oversight of Iran’s Access to Finance Act.” The bill, along with the “Iranian Leadership Asset Transparency Act” (H.R. 1638), was debated on the floor of the House of Representatives this week before passing the chamber. While proponents of the legislation argued that the bills are unrelated to the Iran nuclear deal, many Democrats joined Rep. Waters in warning that they risked destabilizing the accord and provoking a new nuclear crisis.

The sponsor of H.R. 4324, Rep. Roger Williams (R-TX), took issue with NIAC’s characterization of the bill on the House floor, citing NIAC’s opposition to Trump’s Muslim ban as a reason to support his bill. NIAC Policy Director Jamal Abdi responded to Rep. Williams’ comments an open letter.

H.R. 4324 would push the Secretary of the Treasury to revoke licenses that facilitate the sale of aircraft to Iran for reasons beyond what is articulated in the deal. For example, it requires the Secretary to certify whether Iranian airlines have provided services to sanctioned persons. Under the accord, the U.S. is obligated to permit the sale of aircraft to Iran provided that licensed aircraft are used solely for civilian purposes. In going beyond these terms, the bill pushes for the cancellation of the sale of aircraft in a manner that would jeopardize a core U.S. obligation under the nuclear deal.

Defenders of the nuclear deal pointed these concerns out on the House floor, though the bill ultimately passed. Rep. David Price (D-NC), who led several pro-diplomacy letters that were vital to build support for nuclear negotiations on Capitol Hill, stated that “Iran’s ability to replenish its aging civil aviation fleet, which was depleted by decades of sanctions, was a key incentive for Tehran to sign onto the JCPOA.” He warned that Iran would view the bill as a violation of the JCPOA and that it would also “break faith” with U.S. partners in the P5+1 that helped negotiate the accord. Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT) concurred, warning “It is not a stretch, in fact, it is fairly clear that if H.R. 4324 were to pass, the Iranians and others could credibly claim that we have violated our obligations under the JCPOA.”

The debate over the other bill up for consideration, H.R. 1638, also resulted in a relitigation of the Iran nuclear deal. The bill, which would require the Department of Treasury to publish the financial assets of top Iranian officials, is nearly identical to a legislation introduced last year which received a veto threat from the Obama administration. The Obama administration then warned that the bill would incentivise Iran’s leaders to make their financial dealings less transparent, divert resources away from the Treasury Department’s work to sanction Iranian leaders, and likely be seen as an attempt to undermine the nuclear deal. Rep. Waters echoed many of these points, arguing that “the true purpose of this legislation is to create reputational risk for companies that might seek to do legitimate business with Iran,” thus further jeopardizing U.S. commitments to the deal including the commitment to abstain from efforts to undermine the normalization of Iran’s economic activities.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) claimed that the report would “allow the average Iranian to understand and circulate information of how their leaders are, in a phrase, ‘robbing them blind.’” While there is little doubt that there is corruption in the Iranian government, it’s unclear how much influence such a report would have. As Rep. Waters argued, the Iranian people would most likely reject the report “as U.S. propaganda and a predictable attack on the country’s government by the United States.”

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) further warned that each bill could risk empowering hardliners in Iran, while undermining opportunities to reduce tensions with Iran outside the nuclear deal. “We ought not to fan the flames,” stated Blumenauer. “We ought to be trying to nurture opportunities for cooperation.”

While the bills passed the House by a vote of 252-167 and 289-135, the Senate has thus far declined to move similar legislation. While these bills could go no further, it is possible that there is renewed momentum to pass legislation undercutting the nuclear deal in the New Year.

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