WASHINGTON – A key Senate committee approved new sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program after amending clauses that critics said could scuttle the Iran nuclear deal.
On Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the bill by a vote of 18-3. It was backed by the committee’s two leaders, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the chairman, and Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., its top Democrat. Another sponsor was Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., a leader in efforts to sanction Iran.
Backers insisted that the bill would not affect the 2015 deal struck by the Obama administration trading sanctions relief for rollbacks in Iran’s nuclear program. That deal did not include missile sanctions.
However, parts of the text were amended after Adam Szubin, the top Obama administration official handling sanctions, warned that they could be interpreted as violating the deal.
Szubin in a May 12 letter first obtained by the Huffington Post warned the committee that the legislation as then written would “provoke a terrible reaction in Iran and with our allies, as it would be seen as contrary to at least the spirit of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” the formal name for the deal.
The United States forged the deal by exerting pressure on Iran through a sanctions regime built in collaboration with allies and major powers.
Szubin, who is respected by both parties, maintained tough non-nuclear sanctions on Iran after the deal was in place.
Subsequently, language was removed that would have sanctioned individuals and entities who “pose a risk” of materially contributing to the missile program, an ambit that critics said was too broad. The language now sanctions those who have already “materially contributed” to the program.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee praised the bill’s advancement.
“This bill is directed only at actions outside the nuclear sphere — in no way does it violate the letter or spirit of the 2015 nuclear deal,” the prominent pro-Israel lobby said in a statement. “AIPAC urges the full Senate to adopt this critical, bipartisan legislation.”
The bill’s consideration comes as Iran reportedly has built a third underground factory to manufacture ballistic missiles.
J Street in a statement praised the committee for amending the language but said the bill could still do more harm than good, noting the victory in Iranian elections this weekend of the relatively moderate incumbent president, Hassan Rouhani.
“While the elections were highly constrained, their outcome was significant,” the liberal pro-Israel group said. “They provided a new mandate of support for the president who secured the JCPOA, has criticized anti-American rhetoric and has expressed openness to further diplomatic engagement. In this context, Senators should weigh the merits of passing largely symbolic legislation to achieve objectives that might be better met through future negotiations.”
The Trump administration has ratcheted up rhetoric against the Iranian regime and said it is reviewing the terms of the nuclear deal. President Donald Trump while campaigning sharply criticized the deal, but unlike other Republican candidates stopped short of saying he would scuttle it.
Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, told Congress this week that he was reviewing contracts arising out of the deal that allowed U.S. aircraft manufacturers to sell their products to Iran.
“We will use everything within our power to put additional sanctions on Iran, Syria and North Korea to protect American lives,” Mnuchin said Wednesday in testimony to the House Ways and Means Committee, Reuters reported. “I can assure you that’s a big focus of mine and I discuss it with the president.”