April 12, 2024

Memo: The Mahsa Act (S. 2626)

S.2626 – “The MAHSA Act” – requires the President to determine whether the office of the Supreme Leader and the office of Iran’s President should be designated under existing sanctions authorities. Both the current Supreme Leader and President are already designated under one such authority, so in practical terms this bill would not lead to any increased sanctions. However, the bill would make it more difficult for a President to lift sanctions on these officials as part of any diplomatic agreement. The bill does not include any sunset.

Bill Summary

S.2626 – introduced by Senators Marco Rubio and Alex Padilla this summer following its introduction in the House of Representatives – encourages the Biden administration to designate the Supreme Leader of Iran, the President of Iran, the President’s Cabinet, and any entity overseen by the Supreme Leader under various sanctions authorities – including those set up to target human rights abusers and supporters of terrorism. It does so by requiring the administration to report within 90 days and on an annual basis whether those officials should be designated under the following sanctions authorities:

  • Section 105(c) of the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010, which targets human rights abusers;
  • Executive Order 13553, targeting human rights abuses by the Government of Iran;
  • Executive Order 13224, targeting persons who commit, threaten to commit, or support terrorism;
  • Executive Order 13818, targeting human rights abuse or corruption; 
  • Executive Order 13876, imposing sanctions on Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Supreme Leader’s Office and appointees of the Supreme Leader; and 
  • Section 7031(c) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2021, targeting kleptocrats and human rights abuses.

The bill would greatly increase pressure on the President to impose the sanctions above, and may effectively remove the administration’s discretion on whether or not to issue the designations, as written. Additionally, the act mandates that the President must respond within 60 days to requests from the Chairs and Ranking Members of the foreign affairs committee in each Congressional chamber with background on specific individuals and whether they should be targeted under the authorities above. 

Of note, this bill does not include a sunset and would target the offices themselves, rather than individuals. As a result, it would remain in effect indefinitely and be applied to any future Supreme Leader or President of Iran until its repeal.

Democrats in the House Foreign Affairs Committee expressed concern regarding the House companion bill that eventually passed the House, specifically the language surrounding waivers. As noted by the committee Ranking Member Gregory Meeks in the House Report, “Committee Democrats supported moving the MAHSA Act from Committee to the House floor despite having reservations that the text as currently drafted could damage national security waivers found in underlying statute.” Moreover, Meeks noted “During a future conference process we want to assure this legislative text will not harm any President’s ability to adjust to any potential national security event vis-a-vis Iran–including addressing the nuclear issue.”

Who supports this bill?

The lead sponsor of the House version of the bill, Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN), has been a long-time opponent of diplomatic efforts to avert war with Iran. In the 117th Congress, he and other Republican Study Committee members authored “The Maximum Pressure Act” to codify the Trump Administration’s Iran policy into law, with the support of former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. One of the provisions of that bill, explicitly intended to block any diplomacy under Biden, was to mandate new sanctions on the Supreme Leader. 

The proposal was then re-packaged into a standalone bill following the outbreak of the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement in Iran, which was introduced with 28 Republican original sponsors and used as a messaging bill to attack Democrats. In his press release announcing the House version of the MAHSA Act, Banks noted prominently that his bill is backed by three organizations that have advocated in support of the Trump Administration’s Iran policy, against diplomacy, and for broad sanctions and military action against Iran – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), United Against a Nuclear Iran (UANI) and National Union for Democracy in Iran (NUFDI). 

While positioning himself as an advocate for democracy and women’s rights in Iran, Banks himself voted to overturn the 2020 U.S. election following the events of January 6th and celebrated the Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade. 

The reintroduction of the bill in the 118th Congress gained bipartisan backing and eventually passed the House of Representatives 410-3.

What would be the impact of this legislation?

The targets of S.2626 are already designated under sanctions and have been for several years. On June 24, 2019, Donald Trump signed Executive Order 13876 imposing sanctions on the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his office because of Iran’s efforts to “destabilize the Middle East, promote international terrorism, and advance Iran’s ballistic missile program, and Iran’s irresponsible and provocative actions in and over international waters, including the targeting of United States military assets and civilian vessels.” Under this executive order, the Trump administration designated additional Iranian officials, including Iran’s current President Ebrahim Raisi, on November 4, 2019. This authority has also been used to target various entities nominally controlled by the Supreme Leader, including the Bonyad Mostazafan, Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Order (EIKO), and Astan Quds Razavi (AQR). Critically, there is no evidence the existing designations have been impactful. In fact, the human rights situation has grown indisputably worse since the designations and imposition of maximum pressure sanctions.

Banks and some other proponents of this legislation have indicated it is aimed at preventing President Biden, or any president, from restoring the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) or from negotiating any diplomatic agreement with Iran. They have suggested that it would codify the Trump administration’s designation of the Supreme Leader and related officials that were imposed as part of a “sanctions wall” to forestall a future president from returning to the nuclear agreement Trump abandoned. Reports in 2021 and 2022 indicate that the Iranian government had sought the removal of the designations as part of a restoration of the nuclear deal, though it is somewhat unclear whether that demand would have been part of a final deal or was seriously entertained by the Biden administration. It is not improbable that the new designations would trigger some form of retaliation from Iran. This could risk spoiling ongoing diplomatic efforts to de-escalate Iran’s nuclear program and tensions across the region.

Also of note, the version of the bill that was introduced in the 117th Congress (H.R. 9203) did not require the administration to assess whether the officials targeted by the bill should be designated under Executive Order 13876. After all, they are already designated under the order. Thus, the inclusion of the requirement in H.R. 589 appears to indicate that the sponsor intends to either block a potential rescission of the designation and/or apply it to future Supreme Leaders, future Presidents and associated officials in perpetuity. 

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