The Cable

White House opposed new Iran sanctions

The White House announced its opposition to a new round of Iran sanctions that the Senate unanimously approved Friday, in the latest instance of Congress pushing for more aggressive punitive measures on Iran than the administration deems prudent.

On Thursday, Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) introduced the amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which the Senate passed 94-0. The new legislative language would blacklist Iran's energy, port, shipping, and shipbuilding sectors, while also placing new restrictions on Iran's ability to get insurance for all these industries. The legislation would also vastly expand U.S. support for human rights inside Iran and impose new sanctions on Iranians who divert humanitarian assistance from its intended purpose.

"The window is closing. The time for the waiting game is over," Menendez said on the Senate floor Thursday night. "Yes, our sanctions are having a demonstrable effect on the Iranian economy, but Iran is still working just as hard to develop nuclear weapons."

But the White House told several Senate offices Thursday evening that the administration was opposed to the amendment. National Security Spokesman Tommy Vietor sent The Cable the administration's official position, explaining the White House's view the sanctions aren't needed and aren't helpful at this time.

"As we focus with our partners on effectively implementing these efforts, we believe additional authorities now threaten to undercut these efforts," he said. "We also have concerns with some of the formulations as currently drafted in the text and want to work through them with our congressional partners to make the law more effective and consistent with the current sanctions law to ensure we don't undercut our success to date."

An e-mail from the NSC's legislative affairs office to some Senate Democrats late Thursday evening, obtained by The Cable, went into extensive detail about the administration's concerns about the new sanctions legislation, including that it might get in the way of the administration's efforts to implement the last round of Iran sanctions, the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act (TRA), to which it flatly objected at the time.

"We do not believe additional authority to apply more sanctions on Iran is necessary at this time," read the e-mail, which the NSC legislative affairs office said represented the entire administration's view. "At the same time, we are concerned that this amendment is duplicative and threatens to confuse and undermine some of the TRA provisions."

One of the White House's chief concerns is that Congress is not providing the administration enough waivers, which would give the United States the option of negating or postponing applications of the sanctions on a case-by-case basis.

The White House also said that secondary sanctions should apply only to those Iranian persons and entities that are guilty of aiding Iran's nulear and missile programs. The new legislative language would designate entire categories of Iranian government entities to be sanctioned -- whether or not each person or entity is directly involved in such activities.

The new sanctions too broadly punish companies that supply materials, such as certain metals, that could be used in Iran's nuclear, military, or ballistic missile programs, the White House worries. The bill allows those materials to be sold to Iranian entities that intend to use them for non-military or nuclear-related purposes, but the administration said that the ambiguity in that part of the legislation will make it hard to implement.

Finally, the White House doesn't want to implement the part of the new legislation that would require reports to Congress on the thousands of boats that dock at Iranian ports and the dozens of Iranian planes that make stops at airports around the world. Those reporting requirements "will impose serious time burdens on the Intelligence Community and sanctions officers," the White House said in the e-mail.

The Obama administration often touts the Iran sanctions it once opposed. In the final presidential debate Oct. 22, President Barack Obama said his administration had "organized the strongest coalition and the strongest sanctions against Iran in history, and it is crippling their economy."

The new Iran sanctions still must survive a House-Senate conference over the defense authorization bill, during which conferees may try to change certain portions of the new sanctions regime. Hill aides predict the White House will try to alter the new sanctions during that process, in what they would likely see as an effort to water them down.

"The truth is that the U.S. Congress continues to lead a comprehensive and unrelenting international sanctions program against the Iranian regime despite a comprehensive and unrelenting campaign by this administration to block or water down those sanctions at every move," a senior GOP Senate aide told The Cable. "We beat them 100-0 last year and while they tried to kill this amendment more quietly this time, we beat them again 94-0. Hopefully House and Senate negotiators will stay strong and resist the administration's strategy to dilute these sanctions in conference."

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