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April 28, 2016

Senate Democrats Block Latest Effort to Undermine Iran Deal

Washington, DC – Senator Tom Cotton, author of the notorious letter sent by 47 Republican Senators to Iran’s Supreme Leader last year, is leading yet another attempt to undermine implementation of the Iran deal. This week, Cotton introduced an amendment to a key spending bill that would block the U.S. from undertaking certain purchases to facilitate the implementation of the nuclear agreement. The effort was only narrowly blocked by Senate Democratswho voted nearly unanimously to prevent the Cotton amendment from moving forward. 

The vote was an important test as to whether Senate Republicans, who voted unanimously to reject the Iran deal last year, would continue to force controversial votes on the deal even if it meant grinding the chamber to a halt. It was also a test of whether Senate Democrats would continue to protect the deal as they head into November elections that could decide whether Democrats retake control of the Senate. Buoyed by a White House veto threat against the Cotton amendment, all but four Senate Democrats voted to block the measure from moving forward, and several spoke out against it as a “poison pill” aimed at derailing the nuclear deal. 

Only four Democrats broke with their colleagues to vote yes on the measure: Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ)–both of whom voted last year to reject the Iran deal, as well as Joe Donnelly (D-IL) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND).

The Cotton Amendment

The amendment proposed by Cotton would block the Obama administration from purchasing or licensing the purchase of Iranian-produced heavy water with funds appropriated by the bill. Iran produced its heavy water for the Arak reactor, though under the nuclear deal, Iran is required to reconfigure the reactor and cap its heavy water stockpile at 130 metric tons. Iran shipped out its excess heavy water earlier this year, reducing its stockpile below the cap, but has until now been unable to sell it and has stored it in ships off of Oman.

Following a meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif last week, the U.S. announced that it would purchase 32 tons of that heavy water for $8.6 million. The U.S. does not produce its own heavy water and plans to utilize it for industrial and scientific research. But the move was also likely an effort to provide assurance to potential international buyers that purchase of the heavy water is fully permissible and will not trigger sanctions.

Speaking out against the Cotton amendment, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) highlighted the the scientific, medical and industrial applications of heavy water for U.S. companies. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) described the effort to block the purchase as being aimed at “destroying” an Obama Administration effort “to show Iran a legal pathway which it can proceed to go into the family of nation in a moderate way.” 

“Iran is emerging and wanting to come into the family of nations in a positive way,” said Feinstein. “They had to get this heavy water out, the heavy water is out–it’s sitting in a storeroom in Oman. Iran desires to sell it, just as India sells heavy water. Canada has sold heavy water to us. And that heavy water is used for peaceful purchases.”

The Cotton amendment would not necessarily block the U.S. purchase announced last week, but it would tie the administration’s hands on future efforts to ensure Iran remains under its heavy water cap. It also may have a chilling effect that could deter banks from facilitating further purchases of heavy water by other countries to ensure Iran remains below the JCPOA cap. There are also concerns that the Cotton amendment would constitute a new sanction that would technically be a violation of U.S. commitments under the nuclear deal. 

It is uncertain what the next step will be for the spending bill, which funds U.S. energy and water programs, and whether Senator Cotton will be able to force a vote on his amendment. Some in the Senate have suggested that the chamber should take a vote on a clean energy and water bill that does not include the Iran provision, and that the Cotton amendment could be considered by a separate vote as a stand-alone bill.

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