May 19, 2016

House Defense Bill Includes Several Iran-Related Provisions

Washington, DC – The National Defense Authorization Act of 2017 (NDAA) passed the House of Representatives yesterday 277-147 after the adoption of several Iran-related amendments. The NDAA is a must-pass bill that sets policy and programs at the Department of Defense. It has often been used as a vehicle for Iran-related legislation, including sanctions in years past. The House bill did not include any such poison pills that could threaten the Iran nuclear deal, though the Senate must still consider the legislation.

The base House bill did include controversial language indicating that the U.S. should be prepared to confront Iran in the Persian Gulf – but used the term “Arabian Gulf,” a misleading term that has been used in past propaganda efforts to stoke ethnic divisions in the region. Ironically, a separate amendment was incorporated into the bill that refers, correctly, to the Persian Gulf, meaning that the bill uses both terms interchangeably.

Among the Iran-related amendments incorporated, one from Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL) pushes the administration to provide defensive weaponry to Israel to counter threats to Israeli security, including “nuclear and ballistic missile facilities in Iran.” The amendment’s language was toned down from an earlier draft that called for “air refueling tankers” and “specialized munitions” to be transferred to Israel, cast Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile facilities as “existential security threats” and urged the administration to ensure that Israel has an independent capability to “remove” such threats. The updated Roskam amendment urges the provision to Israel of defensive weaponry requested by Israel, includes no specific references to offensive bunker busters and casts Iran’s facilities as a threat to Israel but short of an existential one. These changes likely reflect existing political realities with the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran greatly diminished and many Members of Congress backing the accord.

Roskam and Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-IN) proposed an amendment to block defense contracts for companies doing business with Iran, which could have targeted Boeing. That amendment was not considered but Roskam did successfully pass an amendment requiring reporting on any Iranian use of commercial aircraft for military purposes. Roskam has led efforts to dissuade Boeing, which is headquartered in his home state of Illinois, from selling commercial aircraft to Iran as is legally permitted under the nuclear deal. Iran has among the worst civilian aircraft records, with dozens of crashes and hundreds of deaths over the past decade due to sanctions restrictions that blocked its ability to restock its aging commercial aircraft. Those restrictions were lifted almost completely under the nuclear agreement despite Roskam’s current pressure campaign.

An additional bipartisan amendment from Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA) was adopted requiring the President to notify Congress within 48 hours of any Iranian ballistic missile launch and shortly thereafter to detail steps the President plans to take in response, including through the potential pursuit of an additional UN Security Council resolution. Iran’s recent ballistic missile testing has been a source of frustration in Congress, and many have wanted the administration to go beyond unilateral expansions of sanctions designations.

Rep. Scott Peters (D-CA) inserted an amendment urging the U.S. to work with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries to establish an integrated ballistic missile defense system, stating that Iran’s ballistic missile tests “are in violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231.” However, whether such testing is in violation is disputed as the resolution states “Iran is called upon” to halt activity related to ballistic missiles “capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” Further amendments were incorporated authorizing assistance and training to countries in the Persian Gulf to deter and counter illicit Iranian smuggling activity, as well as various reporting requirements on Iran-Russian cooperation and activity at Iranian seaports and foreign airports.

Some Iran-related amendments were proposed but did not receive consideration. Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) withdrew an amendment that sought to limit the administration’s ability to purchase additional heavy water from Iran. Rep. Lamborn indicated that he would work with leadership to make sure it receives separate consideration, likely setting up a future fight on the House floor. A similar amendment from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AK) greatly complicated efforts to pass the Senate Energy and Water appropriation as Democrats denounced it as a poison pill and eventually voted it down.

An amendment from Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) to clarify that nothing in the act constitutes an authorization of military force against Iran was not considered. Ellison, with the backing of pro-peace groups including NIAC, led the adoption of similar amendments in past years as a helpful clarification and a balance against hawkish policy language. The absence of the amendment does not change the fact that force against Iran has not been authorized, though perhaps reflects a view that the threat of war with Iran has diminished.

While many of the Iran provisions may become law, they also may be stripped out as the Senate and House must agree on a final text before it is sent to the President. The Senate will take up its own version of the NDAA next week.

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