Support for Iran Sanctions Bill Still Runs Strong in Senate
By Donna Cassata, CQ Staff Writer
When Congress was last in session, the Clinton administration persuaded Senate leaders to delay near-certain passage of tough economic sanctions aimed at halting Russian aid for Iranian development of long-range missiles.
Now it appears the administration may have only staved off the inevitable.
The Senate returns the week of Jan. 26, and support for the legislation remains strong; its 84 cosponsors include Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
The bill's prospects were further improved by warnings from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. During private meetings with Vice President Al Gore and members of Congress Jan. 20-21, he reiterated his concerns about Russian technology transfers to Tehran and the threat that new missiles would pose to Israel.
Senior administration officials, including national security adviser Samuel R. Berger and special envoy Frank G. Wisner, are talking to key members of the Senate about what progress the United States has made in getting Russia to rein in the companies and research institutes that have been assisting Iran with sensitive technology, high-strength metals and other material.
The assessment is certain to include Russia's announcement Jan. 22 that it would impose tighter restrictions on the export of materials that could be used to develop nuclear weapons.
But their effort to persuade lawmakers to give the administration more time to negotiate with the Russians may not be enough. In the first weeks of the session, Congress may hand the president a political and foreign policy nightmare.
The administration strongly opposes the bill, warning that it would jeopardize their delicate negotiations with the Russians to halt the trafficking of technology to Tehran. Senior officials have said they would recommend a presidential veto if the bill is passed.
The House further complicated matters by attaching to the sanctions bill (HR2709 -- H Rept 105-375) separate legislation the White House desperately wants, a Senate-passed bill (S610) needed to implement the treaty banning chemical weapons. The Senate approved ratification of the treaty last year, but the United States is in violation of the accord until it passes legislation setting criminal penalties and the ground rules for international inspections.
If Clinton is willing to accept the sanctions bill in order to get the treaty legislation, that could exacerbate U.S.-Russian relations, already a bit rocky because of the proposed expansion of NATO to include three former Soviet-bloc nations.
If Clinton vetoes the sanctions legislation, he is certain to anger Israel and its U.S. supporters -- the pro-Israel lobby, American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), has pushed hard for the sanctions bill -- and raise questions about the hard-line U.S. policy toward Iran.
Earlier this month, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami appealed to the American people for a "crack in the wall of mistrust" between the two nations, but the message from Iran has been a mix of overture and attack.
A veto also would create a political opportunity for Republicans who have gone to great lengths to blame the president for the frayed relationship between the United States and its Mideast ally Israel.
The administration recognizes that the stakes are high.
Gore telephoned Russian Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin on Jan. 17. They discussed the "continuing efforts to stop the flow of technology to Iran's ballistic missile program and agreed that both governments will intensify efforts to prevent these technology transfers from occurring," said Jonathan Spalter, the vice president's spokesman.
"Both governments agreed that this problem poses a threat to regional stability and to the national interests of Russia and the United States," Spalter said.
The sanctions bill would require the Clinton administration to publish periodic reports identifying overseas companies or research institutes that have transferred, or have attempted to transfer, prohibited missile-related technology to Iran since Aug. 8, 1995, the date Russia signed the Missile Technology Control Regime, a multilateral agreement to prevent the spread of ballistic missiles.
Though the bill does not specifically mention Russia, the companies and labs most frequently cited are all Russian.
Sanctions, including a ban on any U.S. economic aid, would be imposed for at least two years against any organization in violation.
The administration is particularly concerned about the low threshold that would trigger sanctions.
Under the bill, "credible information" of a violation would result in the penalties. Other laws that would require economic sanctions to deter weapons proliferation call for sanctions only if a "preponderance of the evidence" shows a violation.
The House-passed bill, which the Senate would consider when lawmakers return, would allow the president to waive the required sanctions on national security grounds.
The Senate version of the legislation (S1311) does not include the waiver. That bill, sponsored by Lott and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., is pending before the Foreign Relations Committee.
Spurred by published reports of the technology transfers and the assessment from Israeli intelligence of Russian help for Iran, the House moved quickly on the legislation. The International Relations Committee approved the measure Oct. 24, and the House passed it by voice vote Nov. 12.
Both House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., were among more than 100 House cosponsors of the bill.
Lawmakers complained that the administration had the tools to punish those who aid Iran under other sanctions legislation but had failed to exercise its authority. The sentiment was the same in the Senate.
"An Iran with weapons of mass destruction is arguably the single biggest threat that faces the United States and its allies," Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, said Jan. 21. "Armed with weapons of mass destruction, Iran's rogue regime will be a menace to world security."
The Senate was poised to pass the sanctions bill Nov. 13, but an appeal from the administration to hold off persuaded Senate leaders to wait.
The White House argued that moving forward with the legislation before Wisner's trip to Moscow in January for talks with the Russians would undermine delicate negotiations. Clinton appointed Wisner, the former ambassador to India, in July 1997 to serve as a special envoy on the Russian weapons proliferation issue.
With Congress' return, the administration will have to come up with significant progress in the U.S.-Russian negotiations and the promise of more concessions by Russia to head off the legislation.
Lott was willing to give the administration some time to brief lawmakers on the situation before bringing the sanctions bill to a vote in the Senate.
Before Congress' return, the Republican majority on the Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on International Security, Proliferation and Federal Services issued a report sharply critical of the administration's effort to halt nuclear weapons proliferation.
"By speaking loudly but carrying a small stick, the Clinton administration risks its non-proliferation credibility and America's security," said the report, issued Jan. 12.
The report, based on the subcommittee's 1997 hearings under the chairmanship of Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., examines the role of China, Russia, North Korea and the United States in providing technology and missile delivery systems that would allow rogue nations to develop weapons of mass destruction.
The subcommittee report said research institutes and companies that once were part of the military complex in the Soviet Union reportedly have provided equipment and material that can be used to develop ballistic missiles, including the Shahab-3, which could hit Israel, and the Shahab-4, which could strike targets in central Europe. The two reportedly are based on North Korean and Russian missiles.
"Most troubling," the report said, "is an assessment that if the flow of Russian missile technology to Iran is not stopped within a year, Tehran's missile program will become largely self-sufficient and less vulnerable to international pressures."
Republicans concluded that "the administration should do more than engage in discussions with Russia's leaders."
The GOP majority took a step toward punishing Russia in legislation the president did sign on Nov. 26, the fiscal 1998 foreign operations spending bill (HR2159 -- PL 105-118).
The bill contains a provision that would withhold 50 percent of aid to Russia if it fails to stop sharing sensitive military technology with Iran.
The president could waive the provision if he notifies Congress that the aid is in U.S. national security interests and that Russia is taking steps to curtail the transfer of technology to Iran.
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