Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August 2007, pages 26-27

Congress Watch

Congress Continues to Apply Pressure on Iran, Won’t Rule Out Military Action

By Shirl McArthur

Having deferred any meaningful action regarding the chaos in Iraq until late summer or early fall (see below), members of Congress turned their attention primarily to immigration reform and other domestic issues. However, Israel’s team in Congress found time to continue to press for anti-Iran legislation and to gloat over Israel’s victory over the Arabs in the 1967 Six-Day War.

The AIPAC-backed “Iran Counter-Proliferation Act of 2007,” H.R. 1400, introduced in March by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA), and its Senate companion, S. 970, introduced the same month by Sen. Gordon Smith (R-OR), continued to gain support. They would prohibit nuclear cooperation between the U.S. and any country that provides nuclear assistance to Iran; expand and broaden economic sanctions on Iran; expand the types of investment subject to sanctions; and prevent U.S. subsidiaries of foreign oil companies that invest in Iran’s oil sector from receiving U.S. tax benefits for oil and gas exploration. Nothing in the bills calls for constructive engagement with Tehran or offers incentives for Iran to modify its nuclear program.

H.R. 1400 also includes a section, absent from S. 970, saying that “nothing in this Act shall be construed as authorizing the use of force or the use of the U.S. armed forces against Iran.” Separately, however, during the debate on the Defense Authorization bill, H.R. 1585, Rep. Robert Andrews (D-NJ) offered an amendment saying that funds authorized for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could not be used “to plan a contingency operation in Iran,” and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) offered an amendment to “clarify” that no previously enacted law authorizes military action against Iran, and to prohibit military action against Iran without specific congressional authorization. The Andrews amendment was defeated by a vote of 202-216, and the DeFazio amendment was defeated by a vote of 136-288.

H.R. 1400 now has 250 co-sponsors and S. 970 has 50.

With the Lantos/Smith bills being the chosen anti-Iran measures, the other bills described in previous issues of theWashington Report on Middle East Affairs, toughening sanctions against Iran have made little progress. Only H.R. 957, introduced in February by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) to amend the Iran-Syria Non-Proliferation Act and expand the entities against which sanctions may be imposed, has gained significant co-sponsors. It now has 48, including Ros-Lehtinen.

Other bills are aimed at discouraging private investment in Iran. H.R. 1357, introduced by Ros-Lehtinen in March, would require divestment by U.S. public and private pension plans and mutual funds of companies having made more than $20 million in investments in Iran’s energy sector. It now has 40 co-sponsors, including Ros-Lehtinen. Similarly, H.R. 2347, introduced May 16 by Reps. Barney Frank (D-MA) and Lantos, and S. 1430, introduced May 17 by Sens. Barack Obama (D-IL) and Sam Brownback (R-KS), would authorize state and local governments to prohibit state and local assets from being invested in companies having more than $20 million in investments in Iran’s energy sector.

Jerusalem and Other Pro-Israel Measures, and One Positive Resolution

On June 5, the House passed by voice vote, under “suspension of the rules,” H.Con.Res. 152, introduced by Lantos on May 22, “congratulating” Israel on the 40th anniversary of its victory in the Six-Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem. In addition to commemorating Israel’s victory over the Arab states—in itself a poke in the eye to Arabs—it represents, as M.J. Rosenberg noted in Israel Policy Forum, “more evidence that the U.S. is abandoning the role of honest broker.” The non-binding measure also says that Jerusalem should remain the undivided capital of Israel and the U.S. Embassy in Israel should be moved to Jerusalem. Although no roll call vote was taken, Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Lois Capps (D-CA), Sam Farr (D-CA), and David Price (D-NC) opposed the resolution, pointing out its obvious flaws. A similar measure, H.Con.Res. 131, was introduced on April 25 by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC). However, H.R. 895, introduced in February by Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-NY), effectively recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, has gained no co-sponsors and, in the Senate, S.J.Res. 12, introduced by Brownback in April and “providing for the recognition of Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel before the U.S. recognizes a Palestinian state,” has gained only Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) as co-sponsor.

H.R. 1838, introduced in March by Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) and described in the previous issue of this magazine, has gained 19 co-sponsors and now has 79, including Sherman. It would “authorize funding for eligible joint ventures between U.S. and Israeli businesses and academic persons [and] establish the International Energy Advisory Board.” H.R. 2229, introduced on May 9 by Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN), with no co-sponsors, would fund eligible energy-related joint ventures between U.S. and Israeli businesses and academicians.

Also, on May 3 Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) with four co-sponsors, introduced S.Res. 188 expressing the sense of the Senate that Israel should gain accession to Europe’s Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). It was passed by unanimous consent the same day.

But there was a glimmer of sanity in the Senate. On June 7, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), with seven co-sponsors, introduced S.Res. 224, reaffirming the Senate’s “commitment to a true and lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, based on the establishment of two states, the state of Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security, and with recognized borders.” It urges President George W. Bush to “pursue a robust diplomatic effort” and “make a two-state settlement a top priority.” It welcomes the Arab League peace initiative and calls on moderate Arab states to intensify their diplomatic efforts, and it calls on Israeli and Palestinian leaders to “refrain from taking any actions that would prejudice the outcome of final status negotiations.” It also calls on the Hamas-led PA to recognize Israel’s right to exist, to renounce terror, and to accept past agreements. Joining Feinstein as original co-sponsors were Sens. Max Baucus (D-MT), Robert Byrd (D-WV), Christopher Dodd (D-CT), Chuck Hagel (R-NE), Richard Lugar (R-IN), John Sununu (R-NH), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

Some Aid Beginning to Get Through To Palestinians

Following the Hamas takeover of Gaza the week of June 11, the U.S. and the European Union (EU) announced that they were lifting the embargo on direct aid to the Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on June 18 announced an aid package that would redirect all of the previously allocated $86 million to help Abbas’ government provide essential services, plus an additional $40 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to help Palestinian refugees in Gaza. (Technically, this package does not need congressional approval, but Rice said she would “consult” with Congress. Predictably, Lantos said he would want assurances that none of the money would end up in Hamas’ hands.)

Also, on June 19, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, after his U.S. visit with Bush, said he would seek cabinet approval to release the approximately $700 million in tax money owed to the PA. On June 24, the Israeli cabinet agreed to release about half the amount owed, with the rest to be transferred in stages, depending on Abbas’ “progress” in disarming Palestinian militias.

Previously, on May 14, the Bush administration wrote to the EU giving the green light to channel donor funds to the Palestinians through a special PLO account set up by PA Finance Minister Salam Fayed. On June 1, President Bush announced that he intends to deposit $18.8 million into the account. Since getting the green light, the fund received money or pledges from Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Norway and the Netherlands. In addition, the “Quartet” established a “Temporary International Mechanism” (TIM) designed to pay salaries of Palestinian public employees directly to the beneficiaries, rather than through the PA. The EU plans to channel $30 million a month through the TIM.

Meanwhile, in late April and early May, Reps. Jim Moran (D-VA) and Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Sens. Sununu and Joe Biden (D-DE) authored letters to their respective House and Senate Appropriation Committee’s Foreign Operations subcommittee chairmen and ranking Republicans urging that $20 million be earmarked in the FY ’08 appropriations bill to fund the “Israeli-Palestinian Peace, Reconciliation, and Democracy Fund” authorized by the “Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act” (PATA) signed by Bush last December.

(H.R. 1856, introduced by Ros-Lehtinen in March to amend the PATA to include some of the harsher measures contained in the House version she co-authored with Lantos that were dropped in the final version, has gained no support. It still has only five co-sponsors.)

Ros-Lehtinen Introduces New Syria Sanctions Legislation

Ever relentless in her quest to punish those deemed to represent some degree of threat to Israel, Ros-Lehtinen on May 15 introduced H.R. 2332 “to strengthen sanctions against the Government of Syria, to enhance multilateral commitment to address the Government of Syria’s threatening policies, [and] to establish a program to support a transition to a democratically-elected government in Syria.” This wide-ranging bill would expand and broaden the sanctions already passed into law by the “Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Act of 2003.” It includes a limited presidential waiver provision. Within a week of its introduction, the bill had gained 33 co-sponsors in addition to Ros-Lehtinen.

Supplemental Appropriations Bill Passes, Sans Withdrawal Timetable

Congressional Democratic leaders capitulated to the inevitable, recognizing that they did not have the votes to override Bush’s veto of the $124 billion supplemental appropriations bill to fund, among other things, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bush held fast to his threat to veto any bill containing a timetable for U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq. So on May 10, the House passed H.R. 2206, the revised version that includes no troop withdrawal timetable but does include a series of 18 benchmarks to be met by the government of Iraq. The Senate passed the bill on May 17, Bush signed it May 25, and it became Public Law 110-028.

Under the new bill, the president must give Congress a status report by July 15 describing the progress made to achieve each of the benchmarks. Bush must submit a second report by Sept. 15, and the U.S. comptroller general is to submit a separate, independent assessment by Sept. 1. If by Sept. 15 Bush cannot certify that satisfactory progress is being made on each of the benchmarks, economic support funds for Iraq are to be cut off. However, this provision includes presidential waiver authority.

Some of the funds for domestic programs included in the original bill were pared down a bit, making the total about $120 billion. The new bill also includes an additional $122.3 million for the Economic Support Fund and $45 million for the Foreign Military Finance Program (the funds financing economic and military aid for Israel and the Arab countries), but without specifying where the new money is to go.

Congressional Democrats were unhappy that they were forced to vote for a bill not calling for troop withdrawal, to the point where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) voted against it. However, they did not want to be in a position of denying support for U.S. troops in the field. To enable war opponents to go on record, Pelosi allowed H.R. 2237, introduced by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), to be brought to a vote. The measure, which calls for troop redeployment within 90 days of enactment, was defeated by a vote of 171-255. Opponents of the war vowed to continue pressing for withdrawal. House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha (D-PA) said he would remove Iraq war funding from the FY-08 appropriations bill and make it a separate bill.

Meanwhile, the stream of Iraq-related bills and resolutions continued. In the Senate on May 8, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) introduced S. 1336 giving a pared-down list of six benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet. On May 25 Biden introduced S.Res. 15 that would repeal the authorization for the use of force in Iraq and transition U.S. Armed Forces to a more limited mission. In the House, on April 25 DeFazio introduced H.R. 2031 to limit the mission of U.S. troops in Iraq and begin a phased redeployment, and the next day Rep. James Langevin (D-RI) introduced H.R. 2062 to limit the mission of U.S forces in Iraq.

Shirl McArthur, a retired U.S. foreign service officer, is a consultant based in the Washington, DC area.