US defense funding bill sends strong message on Iran

US defense funding bill sends strong message on Iran

Legislation that passed the House Thursday delineates preconditions for nuclear deal, offers strong support for Israel’s defense

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

An Iron Dome missile defense battery near the southern Israeli town of Beersheba, Thursday, December 26, 2013 (photo credit: Flash90)
An Iron Dome missile defense battery near the southern Israeli town of Beersheba, Thursday, December 26, 2013 (photo credit: Flash90)

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives’ version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which passed on Thursday afternoon by a bipartisan majority of 325-98, contained significant funding for Israel’s missile defense programs.

In addition, it also contained a wide variety of other sections reflecting profound House concern regarding Iran.

Although it is likely that the reconciliation process between the House and Senate versions of the bill will extend beyond the six-month deadline for renewal of the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) between P5+1 states and Iran on the achievement of a comprehensive agreement, the House legislation included strongly worded text delineating preconditions for a comprehensive deal.

In a statement welcoming the House passage of the legislation, AIPAC wrote that “importantly, the NDAA measure reinforces three key elements of American policy on Iran: tough diplomacy to dismantle Iran’s nuclear weapons infrastructure, strong sanctions enforcement, and a credible military option.”

Congressional oversight regarding negotiations with Iran has proven a major battleground since the November 2013 agreement on the JPA, and supporters of strong oversight scored a number of key victories in the House version of the NDAA.

An amendment originally submitted by Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) was prominent among them. According to its original sponsor, the section lays out red lines for a final US agreement with Iran, including “that Iran must stop uranium enrichment, WMD production, and sponsorship of terrorism before any unilateral deals are made between Iran and the Obama administration.”

The section survived an early challenge by Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX), who attempted to pass an amendment that would remove Lamborn’s language and replace it with a statement that, according to the amendment’s summary, asserted that “a comprehensive agreement with Iran relating to Iran’s nuclear program should substantially increase the security of the people of the United States and include significant and verifiable constraints sufficient to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.” The replacement amendment would have also required that “existing sanctions related to Iran’s other proscribed activities continue to be strictly enforced until Iran ceases such activities.”

Doggett’s attempt was ruled out of order and withdrawn, but the White House Statement of Policy on the NDAA issued last week specifically took Lamborn’s provision to task, saying that “the administration has concerns with the Sense of Congress language on Iran in section 1264 or similar provisions purporting to set conditions on negotiations.”

While the White House statement acknowledged that “the administration appreciates Congress’s important contributions to strengthening sanctions, which assisted in our ability to conclude a Joint Plan of Action and to pursue negotiations on a comprehensive solution,” it simultaneously stressed that “the ongoing P5+1 negotiations are the best opportunity to peacefully achieve the goal of preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.”

Reiterating warnings made by Secretary of State John Kerry in multiple appearances before Congressional committees, the White House statement warned that “by spelling out conditions for a final resolution before the conclusion of the negotiations, the bill undermines that vital effort.”

The White House attempted, in the statement, to address Congressional concerns that a final agreement will be concluded — as was the JPA — without Congressional review by adding that “the administration is fully committed to continuing to brief and consult closely with Congress so that the US Government speaks with one voice and does not undermine our negotiators’ efforts to achieve a strong deal that will protect our interests, our partners, and the international by community.”

Lawmakers, however, sought through the must-pass NDAA legislation to ground that process of review and consultation in law.

The House bill contains wording that requires the president to report to Congress regarding the JPA, including “verification of whether Iran is complying with such agreement” and offering “an assessment of the overall state of the nuclear program of Iran.” With a renewal of the JPA or comprehensive agreement required by July, the NDAA’s wording specifies that, if by the time this bill becomes law, the interim agreement has renewed or a final agreement has been reached, the president must still report to Congress on the same issues.

Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL), a cosponsor with Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-IN) of some of the accountability legislation, issued a statement in which he complained that “despite the concerns expressed by the American people, their representatives in Congress and our allies from around the globe, the Obama administration is moving forward with a nuclear agreement with Iran that has only served to strengthen the mullahs through massive sanctions relief without the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program.

“Perhaps worse is the administration’s refusal to provide the public with any updates on whether or not Iran is taking meaningful steps to halt their nuclear ambitions,” Roskam continued. “Today, we are working to hold the administration accountable by requiring reports on Iran’s compliance with the agreement and the overall state of its nuclear program.”

Another proposed amendment with even stronger language that would allow Congress “to hold hearings and take a Vote of Disapproval after any deal the administration makes with Iran regarding their nuclear program” did not make it into the final legislation. Although the House Rules Committee ruled that the amendment, introduced by Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) was out of order, it is likely to resurface as stand-alone legislation as early as next week.

In addition to expressing concerns over the outcome of the P5+1 negotiations with Iran, Roskam also submitted an amendment which, according to its initial summary, would require the president to submit a report to Congress every six months in which the president confirms that “the United States has taken all necessary steps to ensure that Israel possesses and maintains an independent capability to remove existential threats to its security and defend its vital national interests.”

The amendment, which passed by voice vote one day before the House voted on the entire NDAA, also includes a statement that “it is the sense of Congress that air-refueling tankers and advanced bunker-buster munitions should immediately be transferred to Israel to ensure our democratic ally has an independent capability to remove any existential threat posed by the Iranian nuclear program and defend its vital national interests.”

In an opinion piece published earlier this year in the Wall Street Journal, Lt. Gen. David Deptula, the retired former chief of Air Force intelligence and air campaign planner for Operations Desert Storm and Enduring Freedom, and JINSA CEO Michael Makovsky pointed out that while “Israel has 2,000- and 5,000-pound bunker-buster bombs, some of which were delivered by the Obama administration,” it is possible that these bombs will not be able to do major damage to Iranian underground nuclear facilities.

Israel, they argued, could benefit from receiving “an appropriate number of GBU-57 30,000-pound bunker-buster bombs, known as the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, or MOP,” a weapon that would also require the delivery of bombers capable of carrying the weapon, such as the B-52 or the B-2. Delivery of the stealth B-2 is improbable, but the B-52 is hardly cutting-edge and many of them are currently in storage.

Israel had reportedly hoped for MOPs as part of an arms deal package finalized in April 2013, but the US was unwilling to turn over the technology.

A second, similar section of the bill, first sponsored by Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ), states that “Congress declares that it is the policy of the United States to fully support Israel’s lawful exercise of self-defense, including actions to halt regional aggression.” The Gosar amendment did not, however, delineate the terms of that “support”.

The House version of the NDAA included strong support for Israel’s anti-missile defense systems, including Iron Dome, David’s Sling and the Arrow. The House authorized $268.8 million for Israeli Cooperative Programs — including the Arrow, Arrow 3 and David’s Sling — an increase of $172 million over the president’s request. Iron Dome was authorized for almost $352 million, an increase of $176 million over the president’s request.

Israel may also find itself cooperating on operational testing of a US-developed laser-based missile interception system that is similar in concept to Israel’s Iron Beam, which is still in development.

The Armed Forces Committee Report that accompanied the NDAA urged the secretary of the army to brief the committee on plans for the future of the High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL-MD) by December. The plan, the committee mandated, should include “an analysis on the feasibility of operational testing of the HEL-MD, including the possibility of operational testing of the HEL-MD in international locations such as Israel.”

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