WASHINGTON — The pro-Israel lobby’s top legislative priority — a bill aimed at tightening sanctions on Iran — is losing momentum in Congress now that the Bush administration is urging congressional leaders to hold off in favor of diplomatic efforts to quell Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
Two weeks ago, at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, organization officials said it was a top priority to ensure quick passage of the Iran Freedom Support Act, a bill that is co-sponsored by more than half the members of the House of Representatives. State Department officials, however, recently asked sponsors of the bill to freeze their push for new sanctions as President Bush and his European allies exhaust diplomatic efforts to dissuade Tehran from pursuing nuclear weapons. The White House does not oppose the bill, only the timing, administration officials told their congressional interlocutors.
Pro-Israel lobbyists seemed resigned to a delay and appeared bent on downplaying any suggestion of a rift between the organization and the Bush administration over the issue. Yet the White House could face an open challenge from hawkish Republican congressmen. The Republican leadership on Capitol Hill has not given its final word on the administration’s request. According to congressional sources involved with the legislation, Republican lawmakers are split over how to proceed. Some more hawkish members working on Middle East affairs are inclined to disregard the White House request and push ahead with the bill as soon as possible. Others in positions of power seem more inclined to grant the administration’s request for more time. House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde recently wrote to the bill’s sponsor, fellow Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, arguing that a vote on the bill at this time might “overly constrain the president, as he attempts to grapple with a difficult and fast-moving situation in Iran,” according to a report in last week’s The Hill newspaper.
Ros-Lehtinen, who heads the House subcommittee on the Middle East, declined to comment. An aide to the congresswoman, however, confirmed that her office had been approached last week by State Department and National Security Council staffers with requests to suspend the legislative process on her sanctions bill. An aide to Ros-Lehtinen said that the congresswoman has not yet decided how to respond to the administration request. “It’s just too early in the game,” the aide said.
Ros-Lehtinen’s subcommittee approved the bill in April, but the full committee has not yet scheduled a mark-up.
Supporters of the bill were hoping to send it to Bush’s desk before Iran’s June 17 presidential elections, but with the White House lobbying against immediate passage it seems clear that the deadline will not be met.
“Frankly, I don’t see this bill going anywhere in the foreseeable future,” said a congressional aide with access to the House leadership. A Republican-led Congress would not defy a Republican president on such a sensitive issue, said the staffer, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Other staffers agreed that the bill is unlikely to advance as long as Germany, France and Britain continue their American-supported negotiations with Iran over safeguards that will prevent Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons. The staffers also said that the legislation is unlikely to pass as long as the option of international sanctions, imposed by the United Nations Security Council, is on the table.
Aipac officials said that the organization still considers the bill a high-priority lobbying item, and is seeking more members of Congress to co-sponsor it. So far, 263 members of the House have joined as co-sponsors. Twenty-five Senators are co-sponsoring a similar piece of legislation introduced by Pennsylvania Republican Rick Santorum. But, just like Hyde, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican, supports delaying discussion on the Iran sanctions bill.
Andrew Schwartz, a spokesman for Aipac, said that the organization would continue to actively lobby for the bill. “Iran’s nuclear weapon program is a huge threat to the United States and to the Middle East and ultimately to the world,” he said. “Therefore, every effort must be made to stop Iran’s illicit program. This legislation is a key part of that effort.”
But Aipac will stop short of putting itself in a confrontation with the administration over the bill, pro-Israel activists in Washington said. One pro-Israel activist pointed out that the bill not only has to be marked-up by Hyde’s committee but is also likely to be referred to the Financial Services and the Government Reform committees, which have jurisdiction over parts of the legislation. That will extend the process in the House and remove any immediate need for the administration to worry about the bill being rushed through Congress, sources said.
Supporters of the bill on Capitol Hill said they are trying to convince the administration that the measure should not be seen as an alternative or as an impediment to the international diplomatic efforts to block Iran’s nuclear program.
“If this [bill] is out there, gathering steam, making its way, gathering tons of co-sponsors, then hopefully that will add incentive to both the Europeans and to those in Iran who are sensitive to their economic and political isolation,” said one of the bill’s supporters on Capitol Hill.
One pro-Israel lobbyist said that the bill could be used by the administration in the same way that the Syria Accountability Act was used for almost a year before President Bush signed it into law in December 2003. Lawmakers were pushing to pass the bill, which Aipac enthusiastically supported. Congress, however, accepted the administration’s request to hold off while it tried to use diplomacy to convince Syria to stop supporting anti-Israeli terrorist groups. The pending congressional legislation was used as a stick to threaten Syria. Once the administration concluded that Bashar Assad’s regime was not adequately cooperating, it gave Congress a green light to go ahead with legislation, and the bill was fast-tracked through both chambers, eliciting vast support.
“You could have the same thing here: pending legislation that is ready to go, which could be used as additional leverage and kicked into action when circumstances are ripe,” said one pro-Israel activist on Capitol Hill.
The Iran Freedom Support Act would toughen sanctions already imposed on Iran for its support of terrorism. The new sanctions would be used to curb Tehran’s appetite for nuclear weapons. The proposed legislation would make some existing optional sanctions mandatory. It would require the imposition of trade sanctions on private or government lenders, insurers, underwriters, re-insurers, and guarantors investing in Iran’s energy industry. It would also provide assistance to pro-democracy groups in Iran and fund independent pro-democracy broadcasts to Iran.