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House passes two sanctions bills, sending foreign policy message on Iran and Syria

WASHINGTON – The House laid down two markers Tuesday as to how it will try to shape foreign policy going into the new administration by passing two sanctions bills: one targeting Iran, the other Syria.

The House overwhelmingly passed a 10-year extension of the Iran Sanctions Act, or ISA, by vote of 419 to 1. The ISA forms the basis for energy, banking and defense sanctions against Iran’s nuclear and missile activities, and is set to expire at the end of the year.

The House also passed by voice vote a measure imposing new sanctions on anyone who provides the Syrian government with financial, material or technological support, in an effort to “halt the wholesale slaughter of the Syrian people” – a category that includes Russia and Iran.

The Obama administration had previously sought to delay both measures, though the president never threatened a veto, and the president-elect has yet to weigh in on either proposal with direct criticism or words of support. But the bills are a message from the House that they favor a strict approach to dealing with Tehran and international powers helping Syria’s government target civilians in that country’s civil war – even if the White House would rather be left to its own devices.

Though the United States and other parties agreed last year to eventually lift certain sanctions on Iran in exchange for Tehran scrapping its nuclear program, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have long argued that an extension of the ISA is necessary to ensure that there are punitive measures to “snap back” to if Iran violates its obligations under the nuclear deal.

Since then, the Obama White House has indicated that they believe the ISA is unnecessary, asserting that the president already has the authority to sanction Tehran if it violates the deal, as well as over recent ballistic missile activity and other aggressive moves. Congressional leaders don’t accept this argument.

“The original understanding was that we would extend it so we would have snap-back sanctions if we needed them,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., said Monday. “That was the agreement, that we would have these in abeyance, we would have these in place and thus be able to assure enforcement.”

The ISA renewal does not change its terms – a choice that is expected to influence debate in the Senate, where there are three competing proposals to extend the same law. In addition to the clean ISA renewal, there is a proposal from Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., to supplement the ISA extension with new sanctions related to ballistic missile tests, cyberthreats and espionage, and the activities of the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps, and another from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to tie the ISA extension to $1.5 billion in aid for Israel. But it will likely be difficult for either to gain a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, where most Democrats favor an unchanged ISA renewal akin to the House’s measure.

The House vote will also be a signal to Trump, who campaigned on a promise that he would rip up the Iran deal when he took office, at one point even calling that his No. 1 priority as president. But in the week since his election, Trump has been backing away from that threat. Last week, Trump foreign policy adviser Walid Phares indicated that Trump would demand changes to the deal, but would not scrap it entirely.

President Obama, who recently met with Trump about the transition, said Monday that he doubted Trump would make changes to the deal, calling Iran “a good example of the gap I think between some of the rhetoric in this town – not unique to the president-elect – and the reality.”

“My suspicion is, is that when the president-elect comes in, and he’s consulting with his Republican colleagues on the Hill, that they will look at the facts,” Obama told reporters Monday. “When you are responsible for the deal and preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, you’re more likely to look at the facts.”

Despite the GOP’s criticism of the Iran deal, which not a single Republican in Congress supported, Republicans aren’t sounding too eager for Trump to keep his promise to rip up the nuclear agreement. Instead, leaders are hoping that Trump takes cues from Congress about how to further squeeze Tehran.

“An alternative way is to ratchet up this pressure outside of the agreement . . . it doesn’t allow the world to say the United States ripped up this deal,” said one Republican congressional aide, who added that the GOP hoped Trump would lean into Iran with more sanctions and efforts to clamp down on cash payments. The GOP has argued that about $1.7 billion the Obama administration sent Iran to settle an outstanding tribunal judgment was “ransom” because it was timed to coincide with the release of American prisoners being held in Tehran.

The House has already passed measures to restrain Iran in all of those areas, and on Wednesday, will likely add one more to the mix, when it votes on a bill to prevent Boeing from sending planes to Iran. Obama has already promised to veto that measure.

But first, House lawmakers will also vote on a measure to impose new sanctions on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and anyone who supports his government’s efforts to acquire weapons that are being used in Syria’s civil war – a category that includes Russia and Iran.

The purpose of the measure is to compel an international response to the targeting of civilians, documented by a defector who took tens of thousands of pictures depicting the mass murder of civilians, and torture practices.

But by looping Russia into the category of regimes that would be targeted by the new sanctions, the House risks running afoul of the incoming Trump administration, which has advanced a friendlier posture toward Russia and espoused a more hands-off strategy vis-à-vis Syria.

Trump has not weighed in on the bill. House GOP leaders were adamant this week that any differences between them and their president-elect over their approach to Russia would not create discord over this bill.

“Regardless of people’s perception about a given regime, or how we approach the conundrum of Syria, there’s going to be consensus on the books to call to account those who committed the war crimes of this magnitude,” Royce said Monday. “Regardless of perspectives on Syria, there’s some unanimity of opinion in sending a message on this kind of conduct.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan added in a statement Tuesday that he was “glad the White House has stopped blocking these critical sanctions, which are a necessary response to Assad’s crimes against humanity.”