Washington - Congress is heading for a showdown with the White House over sanctions aimed at stopping the Iranian regime’s nuclear ambitions.
Last week, an overwhelming majority in Congress passed the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act, which would levy economic sanctions against companies that deal with Iran. The measure will likely lead to a clash with the White House because it includes a provision preventing the president from using executive privilege to grant to certain companies a waiver from the sanctions.
The legislation was authored by California Democrat Tom Lantos, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“Until now, abusing its waiver authority and other flexibility in the law, the Executive Branch has never sanctioned any foreign oil company that invested in Iran. Those halcyon days for the oil industry are over,” Lantos said following the committee’s 37-1 vote approving the bill.
The showdown over the Iran bill involves many of Israel’s allies in Congress, and it takes as its precedent another controversial presidential waiver involving Israel. For the past 12 years, American presidents have used a presidential waiver to delay the relocation of the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. Lantos told Jewish leaders that the embassy waiver had led to his concern about additional opportunities for a presidential waiver.
The proposed bill enjoys massive support from pro-Israel lobbying groups and was the top issue on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee legislative agenda this year. The lobby, however, did not take a stand on not allowing the administration to have its say in the sanctions process.
Washington insiders predict that eventually the administration will succeed in forcing Congress to include a waiver in the bill, but the strong support in Congress is indicative of its desire to see tough economic measures taken against Iran. It also suggests the increasing willingness, even of Republican congressional members, to challenge the administration on foreign policy.
The Iran legislation is intended to increase economic pressure on Tehran by forcing the White House to impose sanctions on companies investing in Iran’s energy sector, to deny tax breaks for companies trading with Iran and to stop nuclear cooperation with Russia if it continues to support Iran.
With some 300 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives, and growing support in the Senate, supporters of the bill feel they can use their veto-proof majority to go ahead with the original language of the bill, denying the White House waiver power.
The administration has yet to send Congress a formal letter of opinion on the bill, but officials have made it clear they want it changed. State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said Thursday that “while we want to do everything we can to push the Iranian government toward compliance with its international obligations, we also want to make sure that that’s done in a way that continues to hold together the broad international coalition that we’ve worked to build.”
Diplomatic sources in Washington noted that the legislation is already raising concern among European countries that feel the pressure from companies facing possible sanctions. The administration would like softer language that could ease American cooperation with its European and Russian counterparts.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.