Congress Braces for Round Two of Iran Fight

By Jordain Carney

The Hill

December 27, 2015

 

The Senate is heading toward round two in the fight over the Iran nuclear deal.

Senators are considering extending a package of sanctions against Tehran set to expire next year. The sanctions law—known as the Iran Sanctions Act—includes provisions targeting Iran’s nuclear program, as well as ballistic missies and the country's energy sector.

“I think it’s likely that Congress will act on it sometime next year,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, told The Hill before lawmakers left for the holiday recess.

He said senators suggested during a December briefing that they were looking at an extension as early as January or February, trying to get Stephen Mull, Obama’s point person on the deal, to weigh in on the potential timeline.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said earlier this month during a Foreign Relations hearing that "in January many members of Congress will call for the swift renewal" of the sanctions law.

But that timing could coincide with the deal's “implementation day,” potentially putting the administration in the awkward position of trying to lift sanctions against Iran just as lawmakers try to extend them.

Supporters of extending the sanctions law say it’s needed so the administration, or future administrations, has the ability to “snap back” sanctions into place if Iran violates the nuclear deal.

They argue that a pair of recent missile tests—which have frustrated lawmakers in both parties—underscores the worry that Iran will try to cheat on the nuclear agreement.

They are pressing Obama to send a clear message that he’s prepared to hold Tehran accountable, including leaving the sanctions law on the table.

“How you respond to this challenge will send a message to the Iranian regime about its compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) wrote in a letter to Obama this month.

He said it would be a “good start” for the president to use existing authorities to target individuals—including freezing their assets—if they support Iran’s ballistic missile program.

He also urged the president to publicly support legislation he drafted with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) that would provide for a 10-year extension of the Iran Sanctions Act.

That proposal, which is backed by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), two presidential contenders, has languished in the Banking Committee. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the committee chairman, however, suggested he backs extending the sanctions.

“Anything to tighten up on Iran, the behavior that they have exhibited and will exhibit in the future, they’re on the right track,” he said ahead of the recess.

Separately, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, has suggested that his panel will be turning its focus to Iran and the sanctions law, as he and Cardin pledge “rigorous” oversight of the deal.

“Now we’re going to begin to look at steps we want to take legislatively,” he told The Hill earlier this year. “I’m certain that will be one of the steps.”

But any effort to renew the legislation would likely get pushback from the Obama administration—and some of its staunchest allies in Congress—over concerns that any new sanctions could be considered by Iran to be a violation of the agreement.

Asked if Iran would consider an extension of the law a breach, Mull suggested it was unclear, during a December Foreign Relations Committee hearing.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) pushed back against the notion that the ballistic missile tests should shift the debate on extending the Iran Sanctions Act.

“I don’t think activity on the non-nuclear side should change the schedule on the JCPOA,” he said, but added that the administration should “go fervently” after Iran if it doesn't comply.

Administration officials have been cool to extending the law, arguing that they have other resources to hold Iran accountable for any potential violation of the deal without an extension of the sanctions law.

To get an extension through the Senate, Republicans will need the four Democrats who opposed the Iran deal, including Menendez and Cardin, and at least two additional Senate Democrats who supported the nuclear agreement to back the sanctions legislation.

Democratic Sens. Chris Coons (Del.) and Gary Peters (Mich.) have both said they support an extension, though they haven’t specifically backed the Kirk-Menendez bill.

Corker went further earlier this year predicting that an extension would be able to get 67 votes—enough to overcome any potential veto.

Cardin, asked how he could convince skeptical Democrats who supported the Iran deal, suggested they were separate issues.

“I don’t think it’s whether you’re for or against the deal,” he said. “I think we all agree that if you’re going to snapback, it’s easier to have the framework in place than trying to pass the framework in the midst of trying to do a snapback.”