The Cable

Iran sanctions bill coming to Senate floor again

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is bringing the Johnson-Shelby Iran sanctions bill to the floor for a second time today in an attempt to pass the bill by unanimous consent, without a formal vote.

The Johnson-Shelby Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012 is a new set of sanctions that would punish any entity that provides Iran with equipment or technology that facilitates censorship or the suppression of human rights, including weapons, rubber bullets, tear gas, and other riot control equipment -- as well as communications jamming, monitoring, and surveillance equipment. It also calls on the Obama administration to develop a more robust Internet freedom strategy for Iran and speed new assistance to pro-democracy activists in the country.

The legislation, named for Senate Banking Committee heads Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Richard Shelby (R-AL), would formally establish that U.S. policy is intended to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and would require the administration to report extensively and repeatedly on its efforts to increase diplomatic and financial pressure on the Iranian regime.

In March, Reid attempted to pass the bill by unanimous consent, meaning that the bill would pass without debate or vote if no senators objected. Reid said there simply wasn't enough time to debate the bill or consider amendments, such one by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) that would have added even more sanctions to the legislation.

But Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) objected to unanimous consent in March because he wanted to offer an amendment explicitly stating that the bill does not authorize the use of military force against Iran, forcing Reid to shelve the bill. Now, two months later, Reid has come up with a strategy that he thinks will get the bill through the Senate without an objection and to a conference committee, where it will be reconciled with a similar bill passed by the House last December.

Reid, Johnson, and Shelby have been working on a "manager's package" to add to the Senate bill that would address Paul's issue and incorporate the Kirk amendment (find the text and a detailed summary here), but the Kirk language will be added as a non-binding "sense of the senate," rather than as binding provisions of law.

The text of the latest version of the manager's package, obtained by The Cable, can be found here.

"They basically took the binding provisions of the Kirk amendment and significantly reduced it to a ‘sense of Senate,' leaving out key details to get Senate Democrats and Republicans to agree to move the bill forward for unanimous consent adoption," said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. "Senate Democrats were only willing to let this language come in as a sense of the Senate and then defer to the conference committee to negotiate."

The Kirk amendment contained new provisions that would impose sanctions against any insurance company underwriting a sanctionable activity by the government of Iran, extend sanctions to all Iranian financial institutions, declare the Iranian telecom and technology sector a zone of electronic repression, sanction any international company selling technology services to the Iranian regime that could be used to censor the Internet or be used for repressive purposes, and sanction satellite companies that are allowing the Iranian government to jam international broadcasts such as Voice of America.

Three Senate aides told The Cable that the Senate was expected to bring up and pass the bill on Thursday. The Senate goes on another recess next week and a new round of international discussions with Iran over its nuclear program begin on May 23 in Baghdad.

When the Congress does get back to work next month, the Senate bill will be conferenced with the House's Iran Threat Reduction Act. That bill does not contain the extra sanctions found in the Kirk amendment, but House leaders have been introducing separate bills containing the Kirk sanctions as a show of support for those measures.

House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), joined with Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) in April to introduce the Iran Financial Sanctions Improvement Act, which contains many of the sanctions measures that Kirk proposed. Other measures found in the Kirk amendment were included by Reps. Ted Deutch (D-FL) and Robert Dold (R-FL) in a bill they introduced in March called the Iranian Energy Sector and Proliferation Sanctions Act.

"While it's a good thing that the Senate is passing this ahead of Baghdad to send a message of strengthening sanctions, this bill can still be significantly strengthened," said Dubowitz. "My guess is the House will fight to have the sense of Senate language changed into binding language that mirrors the legislation that they have already introduced."

Reid's office is also circulating a May 17 letter from AIPAC praising the manager's amendment and looking forward to the House-Senate conference over the bill.

"In our view, this legislation has been further strengthened in important ways by a manager's amendment that reflects the views of a number of senators," AIPAC wrote to Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). "We believe that [the Kirk]amendments fall within the scope of the conference committee and urge you to ensure that they will be given appropriate consideration during the course of the conference deliberations."

The Senate also is debating Thursday a non-binding resolution to establish the sense of the Senate that containment of a nuclear Iran is not an option, but that resolution is not expected to pass by unanimous consent due to objections by Paul.

UPDATE: Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) objected to passing the bill by unanumous consent Thursday afternoon following a short floor debate during which he, along with Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) argued that the bill should include a mention that all options are on the table for confronting Iran's nuclear program, including the use of military force.

In floor remarks, Kyl said that negotiations would continue and perhaps the bill would be brought up for consideration again early next week

"There seems to be an important piece missing and we certainly need the time to talk to folks to see why that's so, whether it could be put back in or if it can't, then to be able to discuss it. Because we certainly don't want something that's weaker than the administration's current policy," he said. "So I would hope that we could just have some time over the weekend and perhaps on Monday when enough of the members can be apprised what has actually been proposed here and see if our colleagues on the other side would be willing to make the accommodation that we may need to have made here."


The Cable

Chen Guangcheng calls into another congressional hearing

Blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng called into a U.S. congressional hearing Tuesday -- for the second time this month -- and asked the international community not to forget about his extended family members and friends suffering government harassment in China.

Chen was able to speak at the hearing through the iPhone of his friend, Pastor Bob Fu, who was testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Human Rights, chaired by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ). Smith has long been active on the Chen case and is determined to raise awareness about the plight of Chen's associates in China, as well as that of women in China facing abuse of the one-child policy through forced abortions and forced sterilization. Smith has accused the Obama administration of avoiding the very issues that landed Chen in hot water with the Chinese authorities.

At Tuesday's hearing, Chen related the story of his brother and sister-in-law, who are still trapped in his home province of Shandong and are still facing violent retribution from local officials due to Chen's daring April 26 escape from house arrest.

"I just want to talk about what happened to my other family members after I escaped from my home. On April 26, around midnight a group of local government thugs led by the local township leader raided my elder brother's home and started beating them violently," Chen said in Chinese, with Fu translating.

"My elder brother was taken away by these thugs without any reasoning and then they came back and started beating my nephew, using sticks, violently beating him up. For three hours, the bleeding on his head and face did not stop. It was so violent he had to defend himself."

Chen's nephew was arrested after the incident and has not been heard from since, though he has been accused of attempted murder.

"This charge against my nephew for intentional homicide is totally trumped up. To be charged with this in his own home when defending against intruders is totally irrational and unreasonable," Chen said.

He said that the local township leader in his family's hometown has led groups of thugs to harass his family and raid his home several times, so the recent action is part of a pattern. But the reprisal attacks since his escape have been especially violent.

"After my nephew was beaten up, he was waiting to surrender himself and the police came back again and violently beat up my sister in law," he said. "Right now I am not able to communicate with them anymore because all of their communication tools were confiscated already."

Chen's immediate family is doing fine and he is in contact with the U.S. Embassy every day, he said. But 10 of his closest friends and extended family have be arrested, beaten, or detained by authorities.

"I'm not a hero, I just do what my conscience ask me to do. I cannot be silent and cannot be quiet when facing these evils against women and children," Chen said.

In his opening statement, Smith said that Chen's application for permission had not yet been approved by the Chinese government and that he and his immediate family are now living under de facto house arrest in a Beijing hospital.

"With the exception of the half-hour each morning and afternoon that the children are escorted outside by one of the nurses, he and his family are not allowed to leave the hospital and no one is allowed inside to see them," said Smith.

"Chinese nationals are not the only ones prohibited from trying to meet Mr. Chen. The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China reported in early May that officials threatened to revoke the visas of foreign journalists who entered the hospital without permission," he said. "I would earnestly ask them not to forget Mr. Chen and his family, or his extended family and others who are risking their security and lives on his behalf. The story, unfortunately, is far from over."

Smith had invited Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and State Department Counselor Harold Koh to testify at today's hearing, but the State Department demurred.

"Given that sensitive diplomacy is ongoing, the committee acceded to the department's request to defer testifying on this matter until it is resolved," a senior State Department official told The Cable.

"I fully expect to have them at a hearing in the near future," Smith told The Cable in reply.