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Must-pass bill gives Congress unprecedented Iran oversight

Key spending law requires monthly reports on Tehran’s nuclear compliance, boosts Israel’s missile defense funding by over 20%

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

The US Capitol building where Congress meets in Washington. (Photo credit:
The US Capitol building where Congress meets in Washington. (Photo credit: Capitol image via Shutterstock)

WASHINGTON – A must-pass spending bill released late Tuesday night seeks to establish unprecedented levels of congressional oversight over Iran’s compliance with the terms of the Joint Plan of Action, the temporary agreement reached between the P5+1 world powers and Tehran in November 2013.

The Omnibus Appropriations Bill for Fiscal Year 2015 will keep the US government funded through September. Although support for the $ 1.1 trillion bill is split in both the Republican and Democratic caucuses, members of both parties have said that they hope to pass the legislation to avoid an impending government shutdown.

The must-pass appropriations bill is the opening salvo as the administration gears up for a fight to prevent the incoming Republican-controlled Congress from passing legislation that increases Congressional oversight over the terms of a potential permanent Iranian nuclear deal, which has been under negotiations for over a year. A recent deadline for reaching an agreement was missed and a new target date set for July.

The bill contains a rider — a non-budgetary clause — that requires the administration to report to Congress every 30 days regarding Iran’s compliance with the terms of the interim plan as well as offer an assessment of the state of Iran’s nuclear program.

Nuclear talks between the P5+1 and Iran in Vienna on November 21, 2014 (Photo credit: Vladimir Simicek/AFP)
Nuclear talks between the P5+1 and Iran in Vienna on November 21, 2014 (Photo credit: Vladimir Simicek/AFP)

The wording requires the secretary of state to submit the monthly report to the appropriate congressional committees, starting from 30 days after the omnibus legislation is passed.

It specifies that even if a “successor” agreement is reached with Iran, the reporting must continue until the end of the fiscal year. Iran and its counterparts in the P5+1 group have twice agreed to extensions of the interim period as they seek to hammer out a comprehensive agreement on the fate of Tehran’s nuclear program.

The report, which may be submitted in classified form if deemed necessary, must contain an assessment of Iran’s compliance with its commitments under the Joint Plan of Action; any significant change in its nuclear program and of the estimated breakout time; any significant change in Iran’s ballistic missile development and acquisition programs; and the adequacy of existing inspection and verification measures to detect Iran’s ability to engage in clandestine activities, including acquiring nuclear-related material, equipment, or technology from foreign sources.

Although top State Department officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and chief negotiator Wendy Sherman have briefed congressional panels on the progress of the ongoing talks, the new language will institutionalize a regular reporting structure rather than the current ad-hoc system.

Calls for additional Congressional oversight are particularly sensitive coming on the heels of a report in Foreign Policy earlier this week which indicated that the US had expressed concerns to UN monitors that Iran has continued work on its plutonium reactor even during the period of the interim agreement. Although the State Department denied that it had failed to report concerns regarding Iran’s compliance to Congress, critics cited the administration’s acknowledgment that it had expressed such concerns to the UN as justification for increased oversight.

More funding for Israel

The bill includes a hefty increase of over 20% in proposed funding for Israel’s missile defense programs in relation to last year’s legislation. The 2015 spending bill includes a total of $619.8 million for US-Israel missile defense programs, with $351 million designated for Iron Dome and the remaining $268.8 million designated for cooperative programs, including David’s Sling, Arrow-2 improvements, and Arrow-3.

This is a slight increase over the 2014 House bill, which included some $504 million for missile defense, divided between $235.3 million in funding for the Iron Dome system and $268.7 million for the other cooperative programs. The increase reflects the need demonstrated for additional funding during the summer’s Operation Protective Edge, when Congress had to pass last-minute legislation to re-fund the program.

Continued call for enforcing sanctions

In other aspects of Middle East policy, the omnibus bill that has earned the nickname “cromnibus” because it seeks to pass a “continuing resolution” rather than a budget, contains language similar to that expressed in previous years.

The bill says it is US policy to seek to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability and continues to call for the enforcement and implementation of the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996. It includes a 10% increase to $112.5 million in funding for the enforcement of sanctions against the Islamic Republic, and extends current reporting requirements on sanctions enforcement and efforts to curtail Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons technology.

The sanctions reports would continue to be required on a 90-day basis, in contrast to the monthly reports on the Joint Plan of Action.

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