A provision in the Senate bill to give Congress a say in any Iran deal is drawing fire from the left for appearing to conflate the country's nuclear work with its support for terrorism.
While a number of lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said they are still deciding whether to offer amendments to the legislation sponsored by Sens. Bob Corker and Robert Menendez, several expressed concerns that the bill would establish new certification requirements that Iran is in no way supporting acts of terrorism against Americans or U.S. entities.
"This is about trying to take one problem off the table so that we can focus on other problems like their support for terrorism," committee member Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut told CQ Roll Call. "I am nervous that the ball seems to be conveniently moved as to what we expect out of negotiations."
While the legislation (S 625) has enough bipartisan support to win approval in a scheduled April 14 committee markup, the terrorism provision is expected to be the subject of heated debate by the panel and later by lawmakers on the Senate floor. The measure, which would prevent President Barack Obama from lifting congressionally imposed sanctions without lawmakers' consent, requires 67 Senate votes to withstand a promised veto; at present it is believed to have 65 supporting votes.
Specifically, the legislation would mandate quarterly "compliance certifications" from the Obama administration that Iran has taken no action to advance a nuclear arms initiative and that "Iran has not directly supported or carried out an act of terrorism against the United States or a United States person anywhere in the world."
If the president is unable to provide such certification, the bill would require an expedited congressional vote take place on re-imposing economic sanctions on Iran that were lifted as part of any nuclear agreement.
Edward Levine, a longtime former staff member of the Foreign Relations Committee, faulted the terrorism provision for "moving the goalposts" of a potential agreement.
"Iran can run afoul of this provision without doing bodily harm to any individual," Levine, now a board member with the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, wrote in an online analysis of the Corker-Menendez bill. "The definition of 'United States person' used in this bill includes 'an entity that is organized under the laws of the United States or any state.'"
By that logic, should Hezbollah, which receives Iranian support, bomb a branch of a U.S. bank in Beirut, that would appear to trigger the requirement for a vote on reinstating sanctions, he added.
Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish think tank, defended the provision as "entirely appropriate" given the large majority of U.S. economic sanctions on Iran, including penalties on its financial institutions, "target a range of Iran's illicit activities" including terrorism.
"Anybody who is actually separating nuclear from terrorism issues doesn't understand that the very architecture of our sanctions is hybrid in nature," Dubowitz said. "There is not a clear bifurcation between terrorism and nuclear under U.S. law."
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, one of the committee's top Democrats, who is generally supportive of the bill, suggested there were other, more appropriate areas for Congress to take action to punish Iran for its continued support of terrorism.
"We want to be consistent with the nuclear," the Maryland lawmaker said. "We don't want to do anything that would be inconsistent with an agreement based upon issues that weren't included in negotiations. But that doesn't preclude us from [pursuing] other actions."
Amendments to Come
A number of senators on Tuesday indicated they would not offer any potential amendments until after Congress returns from its April recess.
Laicie Heely, policy director for the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, said she foresees add-ons. "I think we'll see amendments that will make it better and we'll see amendments that make it worse."
Barbara Boxer, another top Democrat on the panel, has her own alternative bill (S 669) to give Congress oversight responsibilities for a nuclear deal. On Tuesday, she said she has not yet decided whether to introduce it as a substitute to the Corker-Menendez legislation.
"I haven't decided if I'm going to amend it or just offer it as a substitute," the California lawmaker said.
The Boxer bill is seen as much friendlier to the Obama administration. It would establish an expedited process for Congress to re-impose sanctions on Iran if the country is determined to be in breach of its nuclear commitments.
Murphy said he has not decided whether to offer any amendments to Corker-Menendez. "I'm talking to other senators on the committee about ways to make it more palatable," he said, adding "I don't know that there's any improvements that can be made that would get my vote."
Jim Risch, R-Idaho, a co-sponsor of the bill, said his immediate focus is in seeing the legislation approved by the committee. "Probably everybody would look at it and want to make some changes to it, but I'm more concerned about seeing it passed," he said.
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