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White House Working To Shape Iran Sanctions

After successfully diluting the Iran sanctions provision that senators attached to the defense policy bill, the Obama administration is now seeking several additional, more modest changes to the language in the final bill, including an extension of the amount of time it has to implement the penalties.

The White House and Senate Democrats worked hard behind the scenes to strip some of the broader elements of the sanctions package before it was introduced as an amendment to the defense bill (S 3254) last month, a process spearheaded by the chairmen of the Armed Services, Foreign Relations and Banking committees, according to senior congressional aides.

Now, according to the administration’s revised or “red-lined” version of the sanctions language, obtained by CQ Roll Call, the White House has proposed that the conference of lawmakers putting together the final defense authorization legislation extend the deadline for enforcing the new sanctions — which would blacklist Iran’s energy, shipping and shipbuilding sectors as well as its ports — from 90 to 180 days after the bill is signed into law.

The administration is also seeking to limit the targets of some of the new sanctions restrictions to a subset of sanctioned Iranian parties who have been singled out as terrorists, weapons proliferators or human rights abusers under previous sanctions programs. Those who do business with those parties would also risk sanctions.

The red-lined bill reveals that the sources of the requested changes include officials from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control as well as senior legislative and legal staff from the State Department.

The website BuzzFeed published a version of the red-lined bill Monday.

The administration’s proposed revisions would not change the general structure of the new sanctions, as voted on in the Senate. In addition to trying to seal off the sale and transport of Iranian energy products — the lifeblood of its economy — the bill also seeks to ban the sale to Iran of certain metals, including graphite, aluminum, steel and metallurgical coal used in the energy and shipbuilding sectors, as well as other industrial processes. It would also sanction Iran’s state broadcaster and its president, as well as anyone found to be diverting certain humanitarian goods, for human rights violations.

The amendment language did not, however, go as far as requiring foreign countries to significantly reduce all non-petroleum sales to Iran, nor did it seek to force countries to freeze Iranian foreign currency reserves, two provisions that its sponsors — Sens. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Mark S. Kirk, R-Ill. — originally pushed for. Both would have likely provoked an international outcry, causing diplomatic headaches for the Obama administration.

According to the congressional aides, officials from the White House, State Department and Treasury met with Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., the manager of the defense bill, Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., and Senate Banking Chairman Tim Johnson, D-S.D., seeking help in persuading Kirk and Menendez to delete or dilute the bill’s toughest language.

“There were requirements in the original that would be impossible to enforce and only make our allies really angry,” one aide said. “They would have endangered their cooperation with the sanctions we have now.”

The aides said both Levin and Arizona Sen. John McCain, the ranking Republican on Armed Services, were eager to see the authorization bill passed without significant opposition from the administration. They prevailed upon Menendez and Kirk to agree to drop those requirements.

After an agreed-on version of the amendment was produced, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., asked Menendez to agree to a voice vote on the measure to speed up the legislative process and include the votes of several senators who were scheduled to leave town, aides said. Menendez refused, insisting on a roll call vote, according to aides. The measure passed on a 94-0 vote, signaling to Iran, the administration and the House the depth of Senate support for the measure as it went into conference.

Given that the White House already succeeded in removing the sanctions provisions it objected to most, lawmakers do not sound terribly inclined to further soften the sanctions.

House Republicans, including incoming Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., are promising to fight to hold the line on the sanctions language that was included in the bill. The latest revisions, however, may be mild enough that they do not inspire congressional push-back.

“We’re looking at their input,” McCain said Tuesday. “I don’t know if we’ll do enough to satisfy them, I really don’t.”

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