US House Passes Tough Iran Sanctions Measure Days Before New President Sworn In

Patrick Goodenough | August 1, 2013 | 2:02am EDT
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Iranian President-elect Hasan Rouhani, center, arrives for a meeting with lawmakers at the parliament, in Tehran on Sunday, July 14, 2013, Iran. (AP Photo/Office of the President-elect, Mohammad Berno)

( – The House of Representatives easily passed tough new sanctions legislation on Wednesday despite calls from some quarters for Congress to hold off and allow the Obama administration to take advantage of the potential opportunity presented by the election of a “moderate” new president.

“Iran’s intent to develop a nuclear arsenal is evident,” said House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) during the debate. “New president or not, I am convinced that Iran’s supreme leader intends to continue on this path.”

The committee’s ranking member Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who introduced the bill last February with Royce, said Congress’ chief consideration was Iran’s “nuclear clock,” not its political calendar.

The Nuclear Iran Prevention Act (H.R. 850)  passed by a significant margin – 400-20 – rather surprisingly, given that more than 130 members from both parties signed a recent letter urging President Obama to carefully explore the possibility of an opening with President-elect Hasan Rouhani, whose inauguration is scheduled for Sunday.

That letter was co-authored by Rep. Charles Dent (R-Pa.), who voted in favor of H.R. 850 on Wednesday; and Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), who voted no.

H.R. 850 aims to tighten the noose around Iran’s oil revenues by compelling buyers of Iranian crude to reduce their combined purchases by one million barrels per day, within one year.

The legislation also seeks to expands the list of sectors of the Iranian economy that are blacklisted (currently energy, shipping and shipbuilding) by adding the automotive and mining sectors.

Other provisions include the barring of entry to U.S. ports of any ship registered in a country that also registers Iranian vessels; and the tightening of existing penalties on Iranian human rights abusers.

And the bill requires the secretary of state, within 30 days of enactment, to determine whether Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) should be designated a “foreign terrorist organization.” If the finding is positive, designation must follow, and if not, the secretary of state is required to provide a “detailed justification” to relevant congressional committees.

Blacklisting the IRGC as a terror group is a step that has been opposed in the past by Obama, Vice-President Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and national security advisor Susan Rice.

In a recent letter to House GOP and Democratic leaders, liberal Democratic Reps. James McDermott (Wash.), John Conyers (Mich.), Keith Ellison (Minn.) and James McGovern (Mass.) argued that voting on H.R. 850 before Rouhani was sworn in on August 4 “would be counterproductive and irresponsible.”

Others who advised against toughening sanctions legislation now included Center for a New American Security senior fellow Colin Kahl and RAND corporation Iran specialist Alireza Nader, who contended that although Rouhani supports the nuclear program he is a “relatively pragmatic and sober politician” and “could play an important role in convincing Iran’s supreme leader to change Iran’s nuclear course before it is too late.”

“If President Rouhani truly has the will and authority to make a bold gesture on Iran’s nuclear program – such as suspending enrichment – he has a small window of opportunity before this bill becomes law,” Engel said in the House. “I think all of us would welcome such a gesture, but until that point we will continue to pursue a path of diplomatic pressure on the Iranian regime.”

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf declined several invitations Wednesday to comment on the bill or its possible implications, saying merely that the administration would “continue working with Congress on all legislation concerning Iran.”

She expressed the hope that Rouhani and the government in Tehran “will engage substantively with the international community to reach a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear program. We and our international partners remain ready to meet at the earliest opportunity once Iran is prepared to do so.”

The 20 lawmakers who voted against H.R. 850 on Wednesday were libertarian Republicans Justin Amash (Mich.), Walter Jones (N.C.) and Thomas Massie (Ky.); and 17 liberal Democrats – Earl Blumenauer (Ore.), Andre Carson (Ind.), Donna Edwards (Md.), Keith Ellison (Minn.), Raul Grijalva (Ariz.),  Eddie Johnson (Texas), Barbara Lee (Calif.), Betty McCollum (Minn.), James McDermott (Wash.), James McGovern (Mass.), George Miller (Calif.), James Moran (Va.), Beto O’Rourke (Texas), Donald Payne (N.J.), David Price (N.C.), Peter Visclosky (Ind.) and Maxine Waters (Calif.)

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