President Barack Obama's administration is working behind the scenes to water down congressional language that would impose crippling sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran (CBI).
The Obama administration sent to Congress this week a list of requested changes to the sanctions language found in the Senate's version of the defense authorization bill, which was passed last week. Those sanctions, which would punish any bank that does business with the CBI, were part of an amendment authored by Sens. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) that passed the Senate over the administration's objections by a vote of 100 to 0.
The House and the Senate are negotiating over the defense authorization bill this week behind closed doors, so the administration has one more chance to try to change the sanctions language before the bill lands on Obama's desk. If the Kirk-Menendez language is sent to the president without any alterations, he will be forced to either accept it or veto the entire defense authorization bill. There's no indication yet which way he would go.
The administration's laundry list of requested changes to the bill was sent to leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. The administration wants to delay the implementation of sanctions not related to oil purchases from 60 to 180 days, and wants to water down the severity of sanctions measures if and when they are put into effect.
Kirk and Menendez sent a letter on Monday night to House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) and ranking member Adam Smith (D-WA), which was obtained by The Cable, urging them to hold the line and keep the Senate language as-is.
"The Menendez/Kirk amendment is tough, responsible and, most importantly, bipartisan. It provides the Administration another key tool to curb Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons while keeping oil markets stable and encouraging other nations to reduce Iranian oil purchases. With the support of every single United States Senator, it needs no alterations," they wrote.
"We understand the administration has submitted to your Committee a list of proposed changes to the Menendez/Kirk amendment -- both ‘technical fixes' and ‘alterations.' We would note that proposals to delay sanctions implementation and water down the amendment's penalties are not ‘technical' in nature and should be rejected."
Menendez had been working with the administration on how to sanction the CBI, but publicly announced on Dec. 1 that he felt burned by the administration's public opposition to his amendment. "This certainly undermines your relationship with me for the future," Menendez told administration officials at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.
So the administration must now look toward Howard Berman (D-CA), the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, for help in altering the Kirk-Menendez amendment. Berman's committee has shared jurisdiction on the bill, and Berman has been active in sponsoring legislation to sanction Iran and the CBI.
In a statement e-mailed to The Cable, Berman indicated that the Kirk-Menendez language might not be the final say in how Congress moves to sanction Iran.
"As the original author of the House amendment to sanction the Central Bank of Iran, I am pleased that the Senate has taken action on this urgent issue. In the near future, the House will pass the Iran Threat Reduction Act, which includes my amendment," Berman said. "Meanwhile, I will be working with my colleagues in the House, the Senate, and the Administration in an effort to ensure that the final language of the Kirk-Menendez amendment is as tough and sensible as possible and provides a time-frame that corresponds to the rapid progress Iran is making toward developing nuclear weapons."
One GOP congressional aide told The Cable that if Berman seems to be working to weaken the Senate language, Republicans are ready to use that as fodder against him in his upcoming primary fight against Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA). The two lawmakers' districts were combined due to redistricting, and they now have to run against each other next year.
"I can't imagine why Howard Berman would want to put his seat at risk by helping the Obama administration weaken Iran sanctions," the GOP aide said. "All he needs to say is 'The House recedes' and the Menendez/Kirk amendment becomes law. Brad Sherman must be licking his chops."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.