April 15, 2024

Legislative Outlook: Irresponsible Votes This Week on Iran Bills

We are deeply concerned by the legislative theater planned by the Republican Majority concerning U.S. policy toward Iran.

This weekend, we saw the consequences of reckless militarism in the Middle East when Iran launched a massive volley of drones and missiles against Israel to retaliate for Israel’s April 1 bombing of its diplomatic compound in Damascus. Fortunately, most of the drones and missiles were shot down, which helps provide Israel and the United States with the option to take an off-ramp.

The top priority for policymakers should be to stop this conflict from leading to a bloody regional war entangling the U.S., Israel and Iran that would devastate the region and cost countless lives. President Biden was right to urge Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to retaliate further, and to signal the U.S. would take no part in any offensive operation. But Netanyahu has defied the U.S. before, including by keeping the U.S. in the dark on the April 1 attack that risked endangering U.S. troops.

Rather than debate how we got here, including the devastating Gaza conflict that has cost tens more than 30,000 lives and threatens many more, the Republican Majority is rushing forward votes on a series of Iran-related bills that happened to have passed committee but are either deeply unwise or totally unrelated to the present crisis. We urge Congress to reject these unserious proposals and instead to demand a debate on how to stop the U.S. from entering into a bloody regional conflict.

Sanctions on Iran are a big part of the reason why the region is as insecure as it is today, and why Iran has a nuclear program that is on the doorstep of weaponization. With nearly everything in the country already sanctioned, Congress can do very little that is wise or targeted against Iranian leaders without undermining U.S. diplomatic strategy or further harming Iranian civilians. 

Foremost, we are deeply concerned by the push for a suspension vote on a bill that calls for banning travel to Iran on a U.S. passport. H.R. 5826 – the so-called “No Paydays for Hostage Takers Act – includes a section requiring the administration to determine whether it should ban travel to Iran under a U.S. passport. Critically, Democrats on the foreign affairs committee backed an amendment to remove the travel ban provision, led by Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-CA) and backed by Ranking Member Gregory Meeks (D-NY) and lead Democrat on the bill Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-FL). However, this was voted down by committee Republicans.

The travel ban proposal is deeply offensive to the Iranian-American community, which depends on being able to travel back to Iran to visit friends and loved ones. Hundreds of thousands of members of our community travel to the country on a semi-regular basis. The Iranian-American community understands the risks involved, but NO government should be in the business of seeking to impose a total travel ban. It is wrong for the following reasons:

  1. It would cut Iranian-American families off from their loved ones
  2. It would not impact Iranian decisionmaking on any security matter
  3. Iran could reciprocate with a travel ban to the U.S.
  4. It could bar journalists from travel and people-to-people exchange
  5. Iran is not North Korea – the U.S. and Iran have far greater people-to-people connections

We urge all lawmakers to reject this bill and speak out against it on the House floor. This bill passed April 16 391-34.

Today (April 15), separate bills will receive a vote and we are concerned about their potential impact:

H.R. 5921 – the “No U.S. Financing for Iran Act” – would force the U.S. to oppose Iran at a variety of international fora, regardless of context, including opposing potential loans at the International Monetary Fund. As the COVID-19 pandemic proved, inflexible international responses are unwise. It includes no waiver or option for diplomatic flexibility, which must be the standard on any sanctions-related bills. This bill passed April 15, 294-105.

H.R. 5923 – the “Iran-China Energy Sanctions Act of 2023” – removes the administration’s discretion on a core sanction impacting Iran’s oil and financial sectors. In so doing, it risks forcing the administration into sparking a trade war with China, with potentially major negative impacts on the global economy writ large. A bill like this, impacting a core Iran sanction and policy toward a global power in China, should not be rushed and must be thought through. This bill passed April 15, 383-11.

H.R. 6408 – to terminate the tax-exempt status of terrorist supporting organizations – at first glance this bill seems to be an odd choice for inclusion among votes related to U.S. policy toward Iran, which augurs ill for the intentions of the bill’s authors. There does not seem to be any evidence supporting the authors’ claims that charities are supporting Hamas in any way, shape or form, and there are already numerous restrictions on the books that could target such alleged nefarious behavior. 

The Charity & Security Network, supporting the work of non-profit humanitarian organizations, has announced its opposition to the bill and warned “This legislation presents dangerous potential as a weapon to be used against civil society in the context of Gaza and beyond.” Likewise, the Foundation for Middle East Peace warned it could enable “a new category of legal harassment of NGOs, focused in the first instance on those that engage with Palestinians or on Palestinian issues, but also enabling attacks on NGOs working in any sector and on any issues.” Likewise, National Iranian American Council Action urges that it be rejected. This bill passed April 15, 382-11.

Additional bills to be voted on later this week:

H.R. 6245the “Holding Iranian Leaders Accountable Act of 2023” – requires a report on assets of the Iranian leadership, how they were acquired and where they are held. Notably, the Obama administration issued a veto threat on an earlier version of this bill out of concern that it could disrupt implementation of the Iran nuclear deal. That administration stated, “Rather than preventing terrorist financing and money laundering, this bill would incentivize those involved to make their financial dealings less transparent and create a disincentive for Iran’s banking sector to demonstrate transparency. These onerous reporting requirements also would take critical resources away from the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s important work to identify Iranian entities engaged in sanctionable conduct. Producing this information could also compromise intelligence sources and methods.” This bill passed April 16, 419-4.

H.R. 6015 – the “Iran Sanctions Accountability Act of 2023” – requires the administration to make determinations related to humanitarian exemptions built into core U.S. sanctions on Iran. Humanitarian exemptions are critical to mitigate some of the extensive damage done by broad sanctions on Iran, and any bill altering them or potentially making them less effective should be scrutinized closely. This bill passed April 16, 408-13.

H. Res. 1143 – Condemning Iran’s unprecedented drone and missile attack on Israel – has some fine to good language condemning the Iranian attack on Israel. However, it fails to note the precipitating event for Iran’s reprisal – the April 1 attack on Iran’s diplomatic compound in Damascus – which was also reckless and escalatory and deserves condemnation. Moreover, there is language that suggests support for a U.S. and/or Israeli military attack against Iran, which would be highly detrimental to U.S. interests and regional security writ large. This includes the phrases “stands with Israel as it defends itself against Iran’s attack and seeks to re-establish deterrence against Iran and its proxies” & “fully supports Israel’s right to respond to this aggression through military, diplomatic, economic, and other necessary means.” It is profoundly reckless to call for more military escalation, and contrary to what President Biden urged Prime Minister Netanyahu this weekend. We urge lawmakers to vote against this resolution in light of this provocative support for military escalation. This resolution passed April 18, 404-14.

H.R. 6323 – the “Iran Counterterrorism Act” – removes a waiver in core sanctions from the 2013 NDAA imposing sanctions on Iran’s financial sector and adds a period of Congressional review for any alteration of the sanctions. This would be profoundly unwise and limit the ability of any administration to strike any deal with Iran that benefited the national interest. Notably, the administration already has to come to Congress for a review if it strikes a deal related to Iran’s nuclear program. 

As the bill lead Rep. Kim stated: “Under current law, the Biden administration has authority granted by Congress to waive sanctions on Iran. H.R. 6323 would amend this authority to prohibit the administration from issuing a waiver on Iran sanctions unless either a joint resolution is passed by Congress, or the administration can certify that the Iranian regime has ceased to provide support for international terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Additionally, Congress will also be able to debate a joint resolution of disapproval of a waiver.” This bill passed April 17, 271-147.

H.R. 4691 – the Iran Sanctions Relief Review Act, would undermine the ability of any administration to conduct foreign policy and secure national interests vis-à-vis Iran, and would have the added effect of grinding Congressional work on other issues to a halt every time the administration pursues a minor change to the overlapping and complex web of sanctions on Iran. It is foolish and unnecessary and should be rejected.

The provisions of H.R. 4691 would mandate an onerous Congressional review every time the administration adjusts sanctions on Iran, including on narrow issues. This time limitation could be particularly damaging in responding to urgent issues, limiting America’s ability to respond effectively and decisively.

For example, after the outbreak of protests in Iran in September 2022, the Biden administration responded to calls from Iranian Americans and internet freedom experts to expand general licensing to support internet freedom and provide the Iranian people tools to counter their government’s online repression. Had H.R. 4691 been in effect, this critical license (General License D-2) that represented a significant alteration of sanctions licensing policy would have likely been subject to a Congressional review and at least temporarily blocked from entering into force, keeping critical anti-surveillance tools away from Iranians who urgently needed them. Likewise, both Republican and Democratic administrations have expanded sanctions licensing to support the response to humanitarian disasters like earthquakes and historic flooding. The administration needs flexibility to adjust its sanctions in urgent moments like this, and there should be no question that Congress is going to bog the process down with a lengthy review.

There is a separation of powers for a reason, and Congress already has ample authority to review the administration’s actions and even bar nuclear agreements with Iran, if it so chooses. The 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) subjected the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to a rigorous Congressional review period where legislators had the chance to pass a resolution of approval or disapproval or take no action. No resolution of disapproval was sent to President Obama’s desk, so the agreement went into effect to the advantage of the United States until it was mortally wounded by the Trump administration.

Congress should not indulge this reckless and partisan bill, which would tie the Biden administration’s hands when it seeks to pursue urgent national security and humanitarian goals with respect to Iran. This bill passed April 17, 278-141.

H.R. 5947 is yet another bill aimed at enforcing the U.S. to renege on the September prisoner swap deal with Iran, following a similar vote in November on H.R. 5961. It would bar Iranian funds held abroad from being used to purchase food and medicine as long envisioned under U.S. sanctions.

Amid the September deal that freed five Iranian-American hostages, including individuals who had been held in Evin Prison for many years, the United States issued a waiver to allow the transfer of Iranian assets held in South Korea – which accumulated under a waiver from the Trump administration – to banks in Qatar. H.R. 5947 takes aim at this waiver and mandates that it be terminated.

As the Biden administration has indicated, these funds are under the stewardship of Qatar and under close observation by the U.S. Treasury Department and can only be spent on humanitarian goods, or food and medicine, with the approval of the Treasury Department. There appears to be an informal hold on the funds following the October 7th Hamas attack on Israel, which U.S. intelligence and other sources indicate was launched by Hamas alone without the foreknowledge of Iran or other actors.

If passed, this legislation would result in:

1) An unprecedented cancellation of a humanitarian waiver that is supposed to prevent purchases of food and medicine from being subject to sanctions;

2) Biden reneging on his own deal, self-sabotaging any future negotiations with Iran;

3) Reduced credibility and leverage to get hostages free, including in Gaza, or to de-escalate regional tensions with Iran.

This bill passed April 17, 259-160.

Additional Iran suspension votes:

H.R. 3033 – the Solidifying Iran Sanctions Act – is wholly unnecessary and would eliminate a sunset in the Iran Sanctions Act that is not due to expire until December 31, 2026. While provisions of the Iran Sanctions Act were waived under the Iran nuclear deal for a brief period, it has been extended twice already. This bill passed April 16, 407-16.

H. Res. 288 – Encouraging the EU to DESIGNATE Resolution – would urge the European Union to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization. While the IRGC engages in a wide array of threatening activities, it is noteworthy that U.S. interests vis-a-vis Iran have been damaged significantly since the Trump administration first imposed the escalatory and unprecedented step of designating the entirety of the military branch – which ordinary Iranians can be drafted into – as a terrorist organization. Presently, Iran’s nuclear program is much further advanced, as is its missile program, which has demonstrated the capability to strike both Israel and U.S. bases around the region leaving diplomacy with Iran now limited to third-party interlocutors ferrying messages to try to deconflict tensions. Europe designating the IRGC will not alter this dangerous track record and would certainly limit Europe’s utility as effective and comparatively neutral third-party interlocutors. It makes little sense to press them to make such a designation or to make it a priority of U.S. strategy when we need to urgently deconflict and de-escalate with Iran. This resolution passed April 16, 411-14.

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