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Senate Puts Iran Sanctions on Fast Track: Smith Bill Swapped for Baucus Alternative in Committee

Emily Blout, Caroline Tarpey and Julia Murray (Source: NIAC)


Washington, DC - A bill that would expand US unilateral sanctions on Iran was voted out of the Senate Finance Committee yesterday. The Iran Sanctions Act of 2008 was introduced by Committee Chair Max Baucus, who labeled it an effective way "to deter the Iranian government from producing a nuclear weapon."


The original bill replaces Senator Gordon Smith's S.970, the Iran Counter-proliferation Act of 2007, which was introduced in last September and has 72 co-sponsors. The companion bill, H.R.1400, passed the House overwhelmingly last year 397-16.


The Iran Sanctions Act of 2008 was voted out of committee Wednesday 19-2, with Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and John Rockefeller(D-WV) voting against it.


New Bill Makes Revisions


Like S. 970, the Baucus bill would codify current executive orders prohibiting all imports from and exports to Iran.  The key difference is that the Baucus bill would preserve the president's waiver authority, allowing him the flexibility to waive the proscribed sanctions if deemed in the "national interest." It also contains a sunset clause of five years.


While codifying the prohibition of US exports to Iran, the Baucus bill would provide an exception to for food, agricultural products, medicine and other medical devices. This is consistent with the Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration Appropriations Act of 2001, which deemed it US policy not to use these items to conduct foreign policy or to address national security objectives. The bill also provides an exception for "humanitarian assistance provided to relieve human suffering" and informational materials. Export of medical devices, humanitarian assistance and informational materials to Iran was prohibited under S.970.


The new bill would also preserve the president's ability to issue licenses to US companies for the export of spare parts for Iran's civilian aircraft, which the former bill would have removed. Opponents of S.970 argued that the provision of spare parts to Iran's aging, US and European made civilian fleet was a humanitarian issue.


Like S.970, the Baucus bill would bar all imports from Iran. Since a minor loosening of sanctions law by the Clinton administration in 2000, US consumers have had access to select food and cultural items from Iran, including rugs and dried fruits. Passage of the current bill would do away with this exception.


Like S.970, the new bill would prohibit the US from entering into a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia, commonly referred to as a 123 agreement, until it has "suspended all nuclear assistance to Iran."


The agreement was signed by the president last fall and submitted to Congress on May 13, 2008. Under current rules, the president must give Congress 90 days to review the agreement, after which it will go into effect unless Congress passes a resolution to oppose it. But the congressional session will likely end short of the 90 days required by law, making it unclear what will happen if no action is taken. Rejection of a 123 agreement by Congress is unprecedented. The US has entered into such agreements with 27 nations.


Finally, the Baucus bill adds financial institutions and insurers to the list of US entities barred from investing in Iran and requires the President to freeze the US assets of individuals linked to the Iranian government.


Committee markup


The markup Wednesday was relatively fluid, with several Senators signaling their intent to refrain from offering amendments until the bill is considered on the Senate floor.  During the course of the markup, several members expressed concern over the committee's jurisdiction over the bill, suggesting that the Foreign Relations Committee would be a more appropriate place to debate these issues.


Two amendments were offered and one was passed.


Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) introduced an amendment to remove the language barring the US from entering into a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia, allowing the pending 123 agreement to move forward.


Bingaman argued that delaying cooperation with Russia "would have the effect of increasing the likelihood that Iran will get a hold of nuclear weapons." He also pointed to Russia's support for three UN sanctions and the creation of international enrichment and spent fuel storage facilities as evidence of Russia's willingness to pressure and monitor Iran.


West Virginia Democrat John Rockefeller voiced his support for the amendment, stressing that "Russia is prevent Iran from getting a bomb," and that without Bingaman's amendment, "passing this (bill) makes peaceful resolution...with Iran less likely." Rockefeller, who chairs the powerful Select Committee on Intelligence, said that recent intelligence pointed to the necessity of the US-Russia partnership and urged fellow committee members Gordon Smith and Jon Kyl (R-AZ), to read the US intelligence reports.


The Bingaman amendment was ultimately voted down, 4-15.  "In addition to Bingaman, Senators Rockefeller, Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) voted in favor of the measure.


"We are not yet ready to conclude a 123 Agreement with the Russians," said Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), who voted against the amendment.


The vote came in direct opposition to the Bush Administration and foreign policy leaders in Congress. In his remarks, Bingaman referenced Secretary of State Condeleezza Rice's June 17 letter to Baucus and ranking member Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), reiterating the administration's strong endorsement of the US-Russian partnership.  "This provision is highly counter-productive and jeopardizes the progress which we have made with Russia on Iran nuclear issues," Rice wrote.


Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden (D-DE) and Richard Lugar (R-IN), echoed Rice in a similar letter to the Chairman.  In an op-ed in the New York Times this May, Lugar teamed up with former Democratic Senator Samuel Nunn to endorse the US-Russian cooperation agreement. "To prevent the spread of weapons of mass impossible without the cooperation of Russia," Lugar and Nunn wrote.


A second amendment offered by Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY) to impose a 180-day limit on investigations of sanctions violators passed easily by voice vote.  The Iran Sanctions Act (ISA) directs the president to "investigate" cases of foreign investment in Iran's petroleum infrastructure. It is left to the president's discretion when, or if, such investigation is concluded, thus allowing the investigative stage to be carried out indefinitely. Supporters of the Bunning amendment argue that the president has used this loophole to abstain from applying sanctions to US allies.


While no formal announcement has been made, the Senate Banking committee is expected to consider the bill or an alternative proposal proffered by Chairman Chris Dodd (D-CT) next week.  Proponents of the sanctions measure hope to fast-track its passage by attaching it to the Defense Authorization Act of 2009, which is expected to be considered as early as July.


A full analysis of S.970/H.R. 1400 can be accessed here.

... Payvand News - 06/24/08 ... --

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