In Near-Unanimous Vote, Senate Passes Iran Sanctions Bill That Kerry Opposed

By Patrick Goodenough | June 16, 2017 | 4:42 AM EDT

Then-Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif lead their respective negotiating teams at the talks that produced the nuclear deal. (Photo: State Department)

(CNSNews.com) – The U.S. Senate on Thursday passed new Iran sanctions legislation by an overwhelming margin, despite earlier fretting by former Secretary of State John Kerry that it could jeopardize the nuclear deal he worked so hard to negotiate.

The Countering Iran's Destabilizing Activities Act, which targets Iran’s ballistic missile programs and applies sanctions against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for terrorist activities, passed by 98 votes to two.

Targeting the IRGC is especially significant, since the controversial organization has substantial interests in many sectors of the Iranian economy. The legislation applies sanctions against the IRGC and its officials, agents or affiliates.

A recently negotiated bipartisan amendment added a Russia component to the underlying bill, expanding sanctions against Moscow for its military intervention in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, cyber-attacks, and its military actions in support of Syria’s Assad regime.

Among other things, that amendment requires congressional review of any decision by the administration to ease, suspend or end sanctions against Russia.

The two no votes came from Kentucky Republican Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who ran as a Democrat in the 2016 presidential contest.

The bill was crafted by the Republican chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.), along with other key members of both parties, including Republicans Marco Rubio Fla.) and Tom Cotton (Ark.) and Democrats Bob Menendez (N.J.) and Bob Casey (Pa.).

Corker characterized the initiative as an effort to wrestle back Congress’ authorities after decades of ceding them to the executive branch.

“With passage of this legislation, the Senate reasserts congressional authority – while providing the Trump administration appropriate national security flexibility – and sends a clear signal to both Iran and Russia that our country will stand firm in the face of destabilizing behavior and that Congress will play a leading role in protecting our national interests,” he said.

Cardin said the bill’s Senate passage “sends a clear message to Moscow and Tehran that there will be economic, diplomatic and material consequences for their aggression toward U.S. interests, values and allies.”

The legislation will need to pass in the House of Representatives before going to the president’s desk.

Kerry led the marathon negotiations with Iran and five other countries that produced in mid-2015 the nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which eased nuclear-related sanctions in return for curbs to Tehran’s nuclear program.

It came into effect in January 2016, after senators opposed to the deal failed to obtain the 60 votes needed to advance a resolution disapproving it.

Throughout an intensive lobbying period, Kerry and other administration officials emphasized to Congress and the American people that the JCPOA would not affect non-nuclear sanctions, such as those imposed for missile activity, rights abuses or support for terrorism.

At the same time, they advised strongly against Congress imposing any new non-nuclear sanctions against Iran, arguing that the executive branch had sufficient existing authorities to respond to behavior such as continuing ballistic missile tests or destabilizing activity in the region. Doing so, they said, could put the JCPOA at risk.

Last month, when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was about to mark up the bill, Kerry used his Twitter account to reprise those arguments, and urged the committee to reconsider.

“There are many tools to up the pressure already in place and at our disposal,” he said. “We need to weigh/consider risk to JCPOA.”

“This is a time to tread carefully,” Kerry tweeted. “After [Iranian President Hasan] Rouhani’s reelection, there is much up in the air/room for misinterpretation. This is not the moment for a new Iran bill.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow