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Sources: White House Angling for ‘Clean‘ Renewal of Iran Sanctions

Administration has stopped short of veto threat as House vote looms

Secretary of State John Kerry, left, takes a seat across from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in January in Vienna, before a meeting about the implementation of a deal focused on Iran’s nuclear program. (Courtesy State Department via Flickr)
Secretary of State John Kerry, left, takes a seat across from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in January in Vienna, before a meeting about the implementation of a deal focused on Iran’s nuclear program. (Courtesy State Department via Flickr)

The House plans to vote to renew expiring sanctions on Iran without adding provisions the White House would likely find objectionable, and sources say President Barack Obama is likely to let such a “clean” bill become law.

At issue is the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996, which targets the nation’s energy sector and is due to expire Dec. 31. The White House says the president and Treasury Department already possess the sanctions-issuing authorities that the law grants. But Obama likely would not veto a “clean” renewal because administration officials have concluded it would not violate the terms of the nuclear deal the U.S. and other world powers brokered with Tehran last year, according to a source with knowledge of the White House’s deliberations.

One senior House GOP aide told Roll Call, “My understanding is that the bill being discussed is a clean renewal.”

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White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Tuesday that he had no “veto threat to issue at this point,” adding, “I won’t prejudge at this point about whether or not the president would sign that bill.”

“That sanctions authority has been used to impose costs on Iran for their support for terrorism, for their violation of human rights,” Earnest said. “So this is authority that the United States government retains and has used to deal with a wide range of concerns we have with Iran’s behavior.”

Sources familiar with the administration’s thinking say the White House’s play appears aimed at keeping new restrictions or penalties on Tehran — or new requirements of the executive branch — out of whatever might reach Obama’s desk.

“There’s strong bipartisan support in Congress for the ISA reauthorization,” said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “The White House opposition is genuine — they really don’t want this — but their public posture is designed to ensure that, if it does happen, it will be a clean renewal without any of the other additional sanctions that Republicans and some Democrats would like to see.”

Another source involved in the debate echoed that sentiment.

“My read is that the administration would accept a clean renewal,” said Ryan Costello, a policy fellow at the National Iranian American Council. “But they are skeptical Congress can resist adding poison pills that undermine the nuclear deal so [they are] reluctant to open any door to that possibility by signaling support for an extension.”

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The 1996 law punishes investments in Iran’s energy sector and was meant to deter Tehran’s pursuit of a nuclear arsenal. Republican and Democratic lawmakers in both chambers want to keep it on the books.

Roll Call first reported the administration’s opposition to renewing the sanctions on Oct. 11, with one White House official saying, “The expiration of the Iran Sanctions Act … will not affect our ability to continue to issue sanctions designations when warranted, as we have ample authorities to target missile-related actors, as well as activity related to human rights violations, malicious cyber activity, and other activity of concern.”

The law has been a “pivotal component of U.S. sanctions against Iran’s energy sector … since enactment in 1996,” the Congressional Research Service has noted, adding that its reach has “been expanded to other Iranian industries.”

But when the Obama administration and other global powers negotiated the deal with Tehran last year, the White House agreed to waive all energy-sector sanctions, pending Tehran’s adherence to the pact.

The White House’s opposition to a renewal pits it against many Democrats. In the Senate, a handful of Democrats are urging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to schedule votes on reauthorizing the law during the lame-duck session.

The Democratic senators, in a letter sent earlier this month to the Kentucky Republican, said that renewing the law is “crucial” because “it remains a critical tool to deter and impede individuals and entities supporting Iran’s development of conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction.”

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A vote during Obama’s final weeks as president could potentially set up another battle about the legal authorities that are granted by the Constitution.

Many Republicans and Democrats, for years, have warned about Congress increasingly deferring to the executive branch on foreign policy, and a debate about voting on the Iran Sanctions Act would likely include calls for lawmakers to reassert themselves.

Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, backs reauthorizing the law and has a bill that would do so. Senate Foreign Relations ranking Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, said earlier this year that a clean extension of the sanctions act had enough support to pass the Senate by unanimous consent. But adding new sanctions would prompt a Democratic filibuster.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton supports renewing the law. Her Republican rival Donald Trump does not appear to have taken a position on the law’s fate, but he has vowed to kill the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Tehran, which Clinton supports.

Contact Bennett at johnbennett@cqrollcall.com. Follow him on Twitter @BennettJohnT.

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