Senate Republicans have run out of patience with Iran's defiance of its international obligations, setting up a possible partisan showdown over new sanctions.
Hawkish lawmakers introduced two bills late last week that take aim at Iran's ballistic missile program and alleged human rights violations. Both bills have been endorsed by the Senate leadership, which is evidently tired of waiting on a long-rumored bipartisan alternative that has so far failed to materialize.
"Today I have led an effort in the Senate to introduce legislation that would require the administration to impose tough, hard-hitting primary and secondary sanctions on every sector of the Iranian economy that supports Tehran's ballistic missile programs," the missile sanctions bill's sponsor, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said in a statement. "Tough words alone will not deter the world's worst state sponsor of terrorism from continuing to develop its ballistic missile program, and I call on my colleagues in Congress, as well as the administration, to pass this legislation and impose without delay the strongest possible sanctions in order to hold Tehran accountable."
The legislative push comes as the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee continue to try to thread the needle on efforts to hold Iran to account without imperiling last year's nuclear deal. Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and ranking member Ben Cardin, D-Md., issued a joint statement soon after the two bills were introduced to reaffirm their determination to strike a bipartisan compromise that can attract enough support to pass the Senate and overcome a possible presidential veto.
"We are continuing to work on bipartisan sanctions legislation,” said Corker and Cardin. “Iran remains a bipartisan concern and we are committed to taking action to ensure that Iran does not become a threshold nuclear weapons state.”
Still, Corker is also showing signs of impatience. He has scheduled a hearing for April 5 on "recent Iranian actions and implementation of the nuclear deal" with Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon, and indicated on March 18 his intention to soon file legislation that would curtail the administration's ability to avoid sanctioning Iran as called for by US laws.
"Any legislation to that end must also deal appropriately with the waiver issue, because I believe President [Barack] Obama used the Iran waivers in a manner that Congress never intended," Corker said. "If any waiver authority is granted to provide a degree of flexibility, we must ensure that no president, Republican or Democrat, can use this authority to enter into an international agreement without first seeking approval from two-thirds of the Senate or both houses of Congress. Since this issue is still unresolved, in the coming days I intend to introduce legislation to address this issue and hold Iran accountable both now and in the future.”
Ayotte's bill takes a new approach by targeting sectors of the Iranian economy — in particular the "automotive, chemical, computer science, construction, electronic, energy, metallurgy, mining, petrochemical, research and telecommunication" — suspected of supporting the country's ballistic missile program. If the administration determines that a sector is in fact "directly or indirectly" supporting Iran’s ballistic missile program, the bill states that "the President must issue blocking sanctions on the entire sector of the Iranian economy."
The sectoral sanctions approach is being pushed by the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), which released a 10-page analysis in conjunction with the Ayotte bill's announcement.
"In January the administration imposed sanctions with very limited teeth because they targeted individuals and companies — procurement networks that Tehran can easily reconstitute,” FDD Executive Director Mark Dubowitz said in a press release. “Only severe new sanctions on those sectors of Iran's economy that support its missile program can change Iran’s strategic calculus.”
Separately, Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., introduced legislation that seeks to punish Iran for its alleged human rights violations. The bill in particular singled out the airline Mahan Air, which has been accused of ferrying weapons to forces fighting alongside Bashar al-Assad's army in Syria.
"I reject our current posture of willful ignorance and inaction towards Iran's terrorist activities, illegal missile testing, funding Assad’s war, and human rights abuses,” Kirk said in a statement. “The Administration’s response cannot once again be it’s ‘not supposed to be doing that’ as Iran continues to walk all over U.S. foreign policy and the international community.”
The Treasury Department has said that it is working to convince European countries to blacklist Mahan Air, which had plans to expand its global presence. Kirk's bill would make that impossible by targeting any "person that provides, directly or indirectly, goods, services, technology, or financial services, including the sale or provision of aircraft or aircraft parts, fuel, ramp assistance, baggage and cargo handling, catering, refueling, ticketing, check-in services, crew handling, or other services related to flight operations, to Mahan Air or its agents or affiliates, or for aircraft of Mahan Air or its agents or affiliates."
Both bills are co-sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and his No. 2, John Cornyn, R-Texas, suggesting they're likely to come up for a floor vote relatively soon. The Banking Committee has jurisdiction over sanctions bills in the Senate, allowing the leadership to entirely bypass Corker's committee.
Domestic political considerations augur rapid action in the Senate. The bills could boost the political fortunes of Ayotte and Kirk, who face tough re-election fights against Democratic New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan and Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., an Iraq war veteran who lost both legs in combat.
The Obama administration has so far taken a wait-and-see approach to the two bills. An official said the White House is "reviewing" both bills, while reiterating that the president already has domestic and international tools for punishing Iran for its missile program, notably the Proliferation Security Initiative and the Missile Technology Control Regime.