POLITICS
05/25/2017 06:29 pm ET

Former Obama Officials Relieved By Partial Victory On Iran Sanctions Bill

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee heeded warnings from former officials and modified the legislation.

WASHINGTON ― The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a modified version of an Iran sanctions bill on Thursday that includes changes recommended by former Obama administration officials.

The original version of the sanctions bill had broad bipartisan support. But Obama-era national security officials warned that it risked violating the Iran nuclear deal and alienating U.S. allies.

With Republicans now in control of both chambers of Congress and the White House, Iran deal advocates didn’t have much leverage to convince lawmakers to tweak the legislation. But with a well-coordinated public and private messaging campaign, a group of Obama alumni succeeded in altering two sections of the bill they deemed risky.

The amended legislation, approved by a vote of 18-3, changes language that would impose sanctions on anyone the president determines “poses a risk of materially contributing” to Iran’s ballistic missile program, to anyone who “knowingly” contributes to the program. The original description, critics argued, was overly broad and would have been difficult to enforce.

“What if your car company was used to haul a missile?” said Richard Nephew, who was the lead sanctions expert on the U.S. team during the Iran nuclear negotiations.

Lawmakers also reworded a section that would have created new conditions for lifting some ballistic missile sanctions that are set to expire in seven years as part of the nuclear deal. The original wording risked violating the nuclear deal by changing the terms of sanctions relief, critics said.

The modifications closely mirror changes recommended by former officials who served in the previous administration’s National Security Council, State Department, Treasury Department, CIA, and Pentagon. Days after lawmakers introduced the bill in March, seven Obama-era foreign policy staffers proposed three changes to the text.

Earlier this month, former Acting Treasury Secretary Adam Szubin embraced two of those proposed changes in a letter to members of the Foreign Relations Committee. The two changes endorsed by Szubin ultimately made it in the amended text of the bill.

“In almost every meeting we’ve had with members and staff since Mr. Szubin and other Obama administration officials weighed in, the offices have referenced their opinions as reasons for concern,” a lobbyist who advocated for changes to the legislation told HuffPost. Szubin, an Obama appointee who served briefly under President Donald Trump, “had a particular impact on the Republican side because he is someone who is known and not seen as overtly political,” the lobbyist added.

The only recommendation from former Obama staffers that failed to make its way into the amended bill was the removal of language that imposes sanctions reserved for global terrorist groups on the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, a component of Iran’s military. Critics warned that the language will have the practical effect of designating the IRGC as a foreign terrorist group, a move that defense officials have warned could compromise U.S. military operations in Iraq. Because the IRGC is involved in a significant portion of Iran’s business transactions, the designation could scare foreign companies away from doing business with Iran, which would undermine sanctions relief promised to Iran under the nuclear deal, Nephew said. 

Of the 21 members on the committee, only four ― Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) ― voted in favor of a failed amendment to modify the IRGC provision.

Convincing lawmakers to make any changes to a bill that was likely to pass with bipartisan support in its original form was a coup for critics of the legislation. But even with the modifications, some Obama administration officials say they remain concerned about potential effects of new sanctions legislation on the fragile international nuclear accord.

The evening before the committee vote, former Secretary of State John Kerry warned lawmakers against passing a new sanctions bill in the immediate aftermath of the re-election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the more moderate of the candidates.

Jeff Prescott, a former National Security Council official who helped draft the March warning to lawmakers, said on Thursday that the changes to the bill may prevent “an outright violation” of the nuclear deal, “but we remain concerned about lending bipartisan license to an Administration that has signaled an intent to revisit aspects of the nuclear deal and escalate against Iran in the absence of a clear strategy or diplomatic engagement.”

That concern was echoed even by some lawmakers who voted in favor of additional sanctions. “The reticence that some of us have brought to this debate is due to the fact that we worry that this can be construed as a congressional pre-endorsement” of future actions by the Trump administration that could undermine the deal, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said on Thursday, shortly before the committee vote.

Though the Trump administration has so far upheld U.S. obligations under the nuclear deal and certified Iranian compliance, the president has indicated a willingness to change course. In a recent joint statement between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia ― Iran’s main regional adversary ― the two countries agreed that “the nuclear agreement with Iran needs to be re-examined in some of its clauses.”

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