POLITICS

Rick Santorum Exaggerates On Iran

05/13/2015 01:36 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2015
Scott Olson via Getty Images

The following post first appeared on FactCheck.org.

Rick Santorum has a history of taking a hard line on Iran, but he engaged in a bit of revisionist history when he regaled South Carolina Republicans with the tale of a Senate battle over an Iran sanctions bill:

  • Santorum falsely claimed he had no cosponsors in 2004 when he introduced the Iran Freedom and Support Act, which he described as “a bill that put sanctions on the Iranian nuclear program.” He had two cosponsors when he first introduced it in 2004 (but that version did not address sanctions at all) and 61 cosponsors when he revised and reintroduced it in 2005 (when it did address sanctions).
  • He drew gasps from the audience when he singled out Democratic Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as those “who stood up and voted against” his bill in 2006. But he failed to mention that the Bush White House lobbied against his bill because the administration was negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran.
  • Santorum also exaggerated when he claimed he authored “a lot” of “the sanctions that you hear about that are crushing Iran, that brought them to the [negotiating] table” with the Obama administration. In fact, the bill he sponsored codified existing sanctions. He did not author them.

Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator who is preparing to run for president, urged Republicans at the South Carolina Freedom Summit to consider actions, not words, when picking the party’s next presidential nominee. “Look at their record,” he said.

With that advice, Santorum gave a history lesson on the Iran Freedom and Support Act as an example of the kind of leader he is. (His remarks begin about 9 minutes into the video.)

Santorum, May 9: Back in 2004, ladies and gentlemen, I authored a bill called the Iran Freedom and Support Act. It was a bill that put sanctions on the Iranian nuclear program and when I authored it I couldn’t get a single cosponsor. No one was worried about Iran. Eventually, two years later, we fought, got it on the floor of the Senate, it was defeated on the floor, and who stood up and voted against me? Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. But six months later we passed that bill unanimously. It is now — the sanctions that you hear about that are crushing Iran, that brought them to the table, I was the author of a lot of those sanctions.

There is a lot here, so let’s take it in chronological order.

Iran Freedom and Support Act of 2004

The first thing to know is that he is talking about similarly titled but substantially different bills. The first was the Iran Freedom and Support Act of 2004. That’s the bill he is talking about when he starts with the phrase “back in 2004.” But he follows with two false statements about that bill.

Santorum says that “[i]t was a bill that put sanctions on the Iranian nuclear program,” but it wasn’t. It was a bill that expressed “the sense of Congress” that the U.S. should support “regime change” in Iran by providing support to “foreign and domestic pro-democracy groups.” There was nothing about sanctions. That will come later — as we will explain shortly.

Still talking about the 2004 bill, Santorum says, “[W]hen I authored it I couldn’t get a single cosponsor. No one was worried about Iran.” At this point, he sticks his hand up and waves, as if to say, “Except me. I was worried about Iran.”

The Iran Freedom and Support Act of 2004 didn’t have much support, but it had two cosponsors. In fact, Santorum’s office issued a press release on July 20, 2004, noting that Sen. John Cornyn of Texas was “an original cosponsor.” Sen. Jim Inhofe signed on as a cosponsor less than two months later on Sept. 7, 2004. It’s important to remember, though, that this bill had nothing to do with sanctions.

And the notion that “no one was worried about Iran” is simply false.

Two months before Santorum introduced the Iran Freedom and Support Act of 2004, the House on May 6, 2004, voted 376-3 on a resolution that authorized the use of “all appropriate means” to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. And one day before Santorum issued a press release announcing the introduction of his bill, the Washington Post wrote that the Bush administration was “under mounting pressure to take action to deal with Iran.”

Washington Post, July 19, 2004: Since May, Congress has been moving — with little notice — toward a joint resolution calling for punitive action against Iran if it does not fully reveal details of its nuclear arms program. In language similar to the prewar resolution on Iraq, a recent House resolution authorized the use of “all appropriate means” to deter, dissuade and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weaponry — terminology often used to approve preemptive military force. Reflecting the growing anxiety on Capitol Hill about Iran, it passed 376 to 3.

So, this notion that Santorum was the only one worried about Iran when he introduced the Iran Freedom and Support Act in July 2004 is wrong.

Iran Sanctions

After discussing the lack of support for his bill, Santorum jumps ahead two years without explaining that he is now talking about similarly titled but substantially different bills, the Iran Freedom and Support Act of 2005, which he introduced on Feb. 9, 2005, and the Iran Freedom Support Act, which he introduced on Sept. 28, 2006.

Both bills, like the 2004 bill, called for supporting pro-democracy groups in Iran. However, these bills also included a section that codified existing executive orders that imposed economic sanctions on Iran — some of which date to 1979. The 2005 bill had 61 cosponsors, including 23 Democrats, and the 2006 bill had nine cosponsors. So he had much more support for the sanctions bills than he did for the 2004 bill that did not address sanctions — despite claiming that he “couldn’t get a single cosponsor” for “a bill that put sanctions on the Iranian nuclear program.”

Santorum goes on to say, “Eventually, two years later, we fought, got it on the floor of the Senate, it was defeated on the floor, and who stood up and voted against me? Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.” At this point, a murmur of disapproval goes through the crowd.

But in singling out the Democratic opposition, including from the woman who wants to be president, Santorum leaves out the fact that the Republican president at the time — and 14 fellow Republican senators — also “stood up” against him.

Here’s what happened: Santorum sought to attach the Iran Freedom and Support Act as an amendment to the defense appropriations bill, but it was defeated 46-53 in a vote on June 15, 2006, after the White House lobbied against it.

In a letter to Sen. John Warner, a Republican who chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee, Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs Jeffrey T. Bergner warned that the amendment would disrupt ongoing negotiations to halt Iran’s nuclear program. (See page S5919.)

Bergner, June 15, 2006: The amendment runs counter to our efforts and those of the international community to present Iran with a clear choice regarding their nuclear ambitions. This amendment, if enacted, would shift unified international attention away from Iran’s nuclear activities and create a rift between the U.S. and our closest international partners. Moreover, it would limit our diplomatic flexibility.

Warner entered the letter into the record, expressed his concern about the timing of Santorum’s amendment, and voted against it.

As Santorum pointed out to his South Carolina audience, the Senate did ultimately pass the Iran Freedom Support Act. (Technical points: It wasn’t six months later, as Santorum said; it was about three months later in September 2006. And it wasn’t Santorum’s 2005 bill, but rather the House version.)

After the White House reached a compromise with Republican congressional leaders, GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen introduced a revised version of the Iran Freedom Support Act on Sept. 27, 2006, and the House passed that bill a day later by voice vote. Santorum introduced a Senate version of the House bill on the same day that the House passed its bill, and two days later the Senate unanimously approved the House bill.

But Santorum went too far when he said “the sanctions that you hear about that are crushing Iran, that brought them to the table, I was the author of a lot of those sanctions.”

The Iran Freedom Support Act did three major things with respect to Iran:

  • “[C]odified the ban on U.S. investment in Iran,” which dates to executive orders first issued in 1979, and gave the president the authority to terminate sanctions if he notifies Congress within 15 days (or three days if there are “exigent circumstances”), according to an Oct. 23, 2014, Congressional Research Service report. So Santorum continued, rather than authored, those sanctions.
  • Authorized funding for pro-democracy groups, which was the primary goal of Santorum’s original 2004 legislation.
  • Allowed for new sanctions against “any entity that contributes to Iran’s ability to acquire chemical, biological or nuclear weapons,” as described by the Washington Post. But the president has the ability to waive those sanctions. The CRS report says no sanctions have been imposed on any entities under that provision.

We asked Santorum’s office to point to specific sanctions Santorum authored that are “crushing Iran.” Matt Beynon, a spokesman for Santorum’s presidential exploratory committee, said: “The fact remains that Senator Santorum is the author of the Iran Freedom and Support Act, those sanctions have played a key role in bringing Iran to its knees and to the negotiating table, and Senator Santorum successfully did so in the face of opposition from now-President Obama and then-Senator Clinton.” (As we noted earlier, the Iran Freedom Support Act passed the Senate unanimously.)

We do not question Santorum’s history of advocating for tough measures against Iran. It’s his revisionist history that we call into question.

— Eugene Kiely

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