Senate Democrats move to tighten up terms of Iran deal

Bill sponsored by agreements’ supporters and opponents seeks to assuage concerns, commits US to increase aid to Israel

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

The west front of the US Capitol is seen under repair September 2, 2015 in Washington (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
The west front of the US Capitol is seen under repair September 2, 2015 in Washington (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

NEW YORK — Democratic senators who expressed concern with aspects of the Iran nuclear deal during last month’s debate over the Senate’s rejected resolution of disapproval put their legislation where their mouths were Thursday, introducing a bill that seeks to close gaps left open by the agreement.

While many Senate bills aspire to bipartisan sponsorship, the sponsorship of the Iran Policy Oversight Act of 2015 brought together Democratic senators who both supported and opposed the administration during the filibuster of the resolution of disapproval. The filibuster effectively prevented the Senate from passing the resolution, which would have faced certain veto on the president’s desk.

But in the weeks leading up to the mid-September showdown, even many senators who supported the administration acknowledged that the nuclear agreement reached between six world powers and Iran in July was far from perfect – and indicated that after the vote, they would move to offer legislative correctives.

Those correctives were evidenced in the legislation introduced Thursday by Senators Ben Cardin, Michael Bennet, Richard Blumenthal, Ron Wyden, Chris Coons, Chuck Schumer, Mark Warner, Cory Booker and Brian Schatz. Although the bill did not have Republican sponsorship, its sponsors argued that it “builds upon the bipartisan commitment to oversight outlined in the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 that passed the U.S. Senate 98 to 1.”

The legislation’s aim, according to its sponsors, is to “strengthen US policy toward Iran and to clarify aspects of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” — the nuclear deal — “that is set to take effect.” It includes a regional security strategy for the Middle East and authorizes additional security assistance for Israel.

“The JCPOA will be implemented and we must now focus on how best to make this agreement succeed by strengthening US policy toward Iran and bolstering our strategic plan for a very volatile Middle East region,” said Cardin, who announced shortly before the September filibuster that he opposed the nuclear agreement. Cardin took the lead in working to draft the bill following the White House’s successful campaign. “We as Democratic opponents and supporters of the Iran agreement are taking the first step forward to chart a new course that borrows from past practice.”

In this July 23, 2015 file photo, Senator Ben Cardin, speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Andrew Harnik/ AP)
In this July 23, 2015 file photo, Senator Ben Cardin, speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Andrew Harnik/ AP)

Bennet, who supported the administration’s position on the deal, said that the legislation “will strengthen implementation of the nuclear agreement and reiterate our support for Israel.” The bill, he said, “reiterates that all options, including the use of force, remain available to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”

The legislation also seeks to counter Iran’s state sponsorship of terrorism by emphasizing increased cooperation with international partners.

Blumenthal anticipated critique of the bill from other supporters of the deal, arguing that “this proposal strengthens and improves the agreement – while in no way contradicting or undermining it – by providing vital oversight and vigorous enforcement to prevent a nuclear armed Iran.

“I support Congress taking additional steps, consistent with the Iran nuclear agreement, to crack down on the growing threat of Hezbollah and other terrorist extremists, and assure that verification and inspection are strictly enforced,” he added.

The bill’s language seeks to sets future US policy on Iran regarding nuclear issues, including statements that Iran does not have an inherent right to uranium enrichment; that the United States will deter Iran from destabilizing regional activity and supporting acts of terrorism; and that all of the options available to the United States, including the military option, remain available to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability.

It explicitly authorizes additional, specific security assistance to Israel and cooperation with the Jewish state, including “applicable ordnance and delivery systems to counter non-peaceful nuclear activities by Iran,” additional foreign military financing “as may be needed to address threats from Iran,” and acceleration of co-development of missile defense systems like Iron Dome, the Arrow and David’s Sling.

Under the legislation, the administration would be required to submit reports every 24 months detailing a regional strategy for “countering conventional and asymmetric Iranian activity and threats in the Middle East and North Africa” as well as reports detailing Iran’s use of funds received through sanctions relief, changes in funding for regional activities and support for terrorism; and detailing Iran’s nuclear research and development activities as well as estimated nuclear weapon capability breakout time.

An additional report addressing the IAEA’s report on the Potential Military Dimension issue – with which Iran must comply by the time sanctions are waived – would also be required of the administration.

The proposed legislation deals extensively with the sanctions regime against Iran. Although the US committed to not reimpose nuclear sanctions on Iran under the terms of the agreement, legislators have suggested that the deal leaves open Washington’s ability to retain its sanctions against Iran for state sponsorship of terror and for domestic human rights abuses.

The bill would put in place expedited procedures for consideration of new terrorism sanctions against Iran if Tehran directs or conducts an act of terrorism against the United States or “substantially increases its operational or financial support for a terrorist organization that threatens US interests or allies.” It would also attempt to solve the question of specific penalties for Iranian violations of the deal, by setting United States policy on readiness to enforce any violation as well as joining with European allies to re-impose sanctions in a calibrated manner in the event Iran violates the agreement incrementally.

The president would also be required to appoint a specific coordinator in the State Department, to be tasked with leading an inter-agency effort to ensure that Iran lives up to its commitments, and monitoring and addressing Iran’s support for acts of international terrorism, ballistic and cruise missile proliferation, and human rights abuses.

The legislation also seeks to clarify a notable ambiguity in the text of the nuclear deal by stating that the US does not recognize a “grandfather clause” that would shield ongoing sanctionable activities by foreign firms in the event of a snap-back of Iran sanctions and by stressing that US non-nuclear sanctions are not grounds for Iran to cease performing its obligations.

In the weeks since the agreement was reached in Lausanne, Iranian representatives have argued that any attempt by the US to impose sanctions – even non-nuclear-related ones – would be seen by Iran as a violation of US commitments under the agreement, and would thus absolve Iran of any of its commitments.

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