Obama vows to veto bill to restrict Iran sanctions relief

Obama vows to veto bill to restrict Iran sanctions relief

White House warns legislation could derail Iran deal as pressure mounting in DC to take a tough stance toward Tehran

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

President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference with Philippines' President Benigno Aquino III in Manila, Philippines, November 18, 2015,  (AP/Susan Walsh)
President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference with Philippines' President Benigno Aquino III in Manila, Philippines, November 18, 2015, (AP/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will veto a Republican-sponsored bill which the administration says will prevent the United States from meeting its obligations under the nuclear deal struck between Iran and world powers, the White House warned Monday.

The bill, the Iran Terror Finance Transparency Act, authored by Republican Congressman Steve Russell, passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week and was expected to reach the House floor Wednesday.

Lawmakers were to vote on the bill as American sanctions on Iran were set to be lifted in the coming weeks as part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) reached in July. Under the deal, the United States is required to lift its nuclear-related sanctions against Iran after the International Atomic Energy Agency certifies that Tehran has completed all of its initial obligations.

According to its author, the bill “would not allow the President to remove Iranian individuals and entities from the list maintained by the Office of Foreign Asset Control of the Department of the Treasury unless the Administration can certify the entity is not a terror financier, human rights abuser, or involved in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.” It would also provide Congress with what Russell described as “advanced oversight,” requiring quarterly reports from the administration regarding the sanctions regime.

Russell has been working on the bill since mid-July, when the United States and world powers reached a nuclear deal with Iran that would swap sanctions relief for a suspension of key aspects of Iran’s nuclear program and greater transparency.

Critics of Russell’s bill say that the legislation is designed to hinder the international agreement by placing additional obstacles before Washington’s ability to meet its part of the deal. Iranian officials have already indicated that should the US fail to uphold its commitment to remove sanctions, Iran will consider the deal to be null and void.

In its statement released Monday evening, the White House noted that the administration “strongly opposes” the bill, which, it warned, “would prevent the United States from implementing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) by tying the Administration’s ability to fulfill US commitments under the deal to unrelated, non-nuclear issues.”

The administration said that the bill included provisions “that connect the United States’ JCPOA commitment to provide sanctions relief by delisting certain Iran related individuals and entities, including banks, to non nuclear issues outside of the scope of the JCPOA,” and also provisions that would “effectively preclude delisting of individuals or entities on Implementation Day.”

If the bill passed, the White House warned, the legislation “could result in the collapse of a comprehensive diplomatic arrangement that peacefully and verifiably prevents Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

“Such a collapse would remove the unprecedented constraints on Iran’s nuclear program that we achieved in the JCPOA, lead to the unraveling of the international sanctions regime against Iran, and deal a devastating blow to America’s credibility as a leader of international diplomacy,” the statement continued. “This would have ripple effects, jeopardizing the hard work of sustaining a unified coalition to combat Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region, calling into question the effectiveness of our sanctions regime and our ability to lead the world on nuclear non-proliferation.”

The administration reiterated its argument that while nuclear-related sanctions would be lifted on Implementation day, sanctions targeting Iran’s support for terrorism, its ballistic missile activities, its human rights abuses, and its destabilizing activities in the region would remain in effect.

“The President has made it clear that he will veto any legislation that prevents the successful implementation of the JCPOA,” the statement concluded. “If the President were presented with H.R. 3662 [the Iran Terror Finance Transparency Act], he would veto the bill.”

In recent weeks, Washington has seen an upswing in calls to reevaluate aspects of the sanctions regime against Iran. Two reported ballistic missile launches, the revelation by Iran of a new underground missile depot, and the firing of rockets near US Navy ships in the sensitive Strait of Hormuz have all raised eyebrows – as well as allegations that Iran is pushing the envelope.

“If we don’t stop Iran’s aggression and hold them accountable to international agreements already in place, the Iran deal leaves America even worse off than we initially thought,” House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy wrote in a blog post Monday. “Even after repeated provocations, Secretary Kerry said that the administration would lift Iran’s sanctions as quickly as possible. This acts as a reward for Iran’s bad behavior all in an attempt set in stone a terrible deal.”

Even a number of House Democrats – including some who supported the JCPOA itself – have expressed concern regarding a potentially conciliatory stance toward Tehran.

In December, the administration assured lawmakers that it would impose new sanctions in response to the continued development of Iran’s ballistic missile program, but later backtracked, with Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes telling reporters on January 2 that “we have additional work that needs to be done before we would announce additional designations.”

“They ought to impose sanctions because we have to show we take this seriously,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a Democratic congressman who took heavy flack for his support of the JCPOA, told The Wall Street Journal earlier this week. “Iran is very destabilizing, very aggressive and very badly behaved and we have to do what we can to stop that.”

Following the announcement of the delay last week, seven House Democrats, including Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz – another JCPOA supporter – wrote a letter urging Obama to respond to the missile tests.

“The United States and our allies must take immediate, punitive action and send a clear message to Iran that violating international laws, treaties, and agreements will have serious consequences,” wrote the seven, which also included Nadler alongside Reps. Nita Lowey, Eliot Engel, Albio Sires, Gerald Connolly and Susan Davis. “Inaction from the United States would send the misguided message that, in the wake of the JCPOA, the international community has lost the willingness to hold the Iranian regime accountable for its support for terrorism and other offensive actions throughout the region.”

During a Monday conference call following a trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey and Vienna, Senator Chris Coons – a key Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – said that he was also “concerned with the hesitation to move forward with the ballistic missile-related designations.”

“We should take action, and I think that’s critical to our demonstrating a determination to hold Iran accountable for its acts,” said Coons, who helped the administration secure a veto-proof majority in favor of the JCPOA in the Senate.

McCarthy argued in his Monday blog that due to these concerns, Democrats should join Republicans in supporting the Iran Terror Finance Transparency Act.

“Republicans and Democrats alike know that we have to start putting pressure on Iran now. This sanctions bill is how we can do that,” wrote McCarthy. “A strong bipartisan vote would send a message to the President that it doesn’t matter who supports the deal or not, America will be safer if we keep Iran in line when it violates international agreements.”

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