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Sens. Tim Johnson (D-SD), left, and Richard Shelby (R-AL) spearheaded legislation that further tightens sanctions on Iran.

Heard on the Hill

Near East Report offers a look at recent legislation in Congress pertaining to the Middle East and the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Senate Approves New Iran Sanctions Bill

The Senate gave unanimous approval on May 21 to a package of new economic sanctions on Iran aimed at deterring the Islamic Republic from developing nuclear weapons.

The Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012 (S. 2101) targets Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, requires companies that trade on the U.S. stock exchange to disclose any Iran-related business to the Securities and Exchange Commission and expands penalties for joint energy and uranium mining ventures with Tehran. The bill, a revised version of S. 1048, would also deny visas and freeze assets on individuals and companies that supply Iran with technology that could be used to crack down on its citizens.

The legislation was spearheaded by Sens. Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Richard Shelby (R-AL). Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) worked constantly to ensure additional tough sanctions were included in the bill.

Sen. Menendez said the legislation sends a clear message to Iran in advance of talks in Baghdad regarding the country’s nuclear program: “Provide a real and verifiable plan for the complete dismantling of your nuclear weapons program, or Washington will further tighten the economic noose.”

“Today the U.S. Senate put Iranian leaders on notice that they must halt all uranium enrichment activities or face another round of economic sanctions from the United States,” said Sen. Kirk.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Robert Casey (D-PA), and Charles Schumer (D-NY) also played critical roles in the bill’s passage.

The House of Representatives passed its version of the bill, the Iran Threat Reduction Act (H.R. 1905), in December and now the Senate and House must work out their differences in the legislation.

House Passes Tough Resolution on Iran

On May 17, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly adopted a sharply worded resolution (H. Res. 568) warning about the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran.

The resolution, which passed by 401 votes in favor and 11 against, warned that “time is limited” to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability and called for “continued and increasing economic and diplomatic pressure” to prevent that from occurring.

It declared that preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is a “vital national interest of the United States” and rejected “any policy that would rely on efforts to contain a nuclear weapons-capable Iran.”

The legislation was spearheaded by Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Ranking Member Howard Berman (D-CA), with the support of Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD). Other original authors of the resolution were Reps. Steve Chabot (R-OH), Gary Ackerman (D-NY), Ed Royce (R-CA), Brad Sherman (D-CA), Tim Scott (R-SC), Alcee Hastings (D-FL), Robert Turner (R-NY) and Ted Deutch (D-FL).

“This resolution is an important statement clarifying congressional commitment to countering the Iranian threat,” said Rep. Ros-Lehtinen. “However, our focus must be on rapidly and dramatically ratcheting up sanctions … in order to put our boot on the throat of this dangerous regime.”

“What better time for this body to send an unambiguous message that Iran must never be allowed to achieve a nuclear-weapons capability, and that its nuclear-weapons program must end once and for all,” Rep. Berman said. “That’s exactly what this resolution does.”

The Senate continues to work on its version of the legislation (S. Res. 380).

House, Senate Panels Approve Aid to Israel

The House Appropriations Committee on May 17 approved the fiscal year 2013 Defense and Foreign Operations Appropriations bills.

The FY13 Foreign Operations bill totals $40.1 billion, including the full funding of $3.1 billion in security assistance to Israel as part of a 10-year Memorandum of Understanding with the Jewish State.

The legislation includes prior year bill language that prohibits economic assistance to the Palestinian Authority (PA) if the Palestinians obtain state or member status at the United Nations or any specialized agency. It would also trigger the withdrawal of assistance to the PA if it decides to form a unity government with Hamas. The bill includes new language requiring the Secretary of State to certify that the Palestinian Authority is moving to halt anti-Israel incitement before providing assistance. In addition, the bill continues the current restriction on aid to Egypt, mandating an automatic cut in assistance if Cairo breaks its treaty with Israel, with no presidential waiver authority. Subcommittee Chairwoman Kay Granger (R-TX) and Ranking Member Nita Lowey (D-NY) played key roles in drafting the bill.

The Defense Appropriations bill totals $519.2 billion, including $947.8 million for joint U.S.-Israeli missile defense programs. Of the latter sum, $680 million is allocated for the Iron Dome rocket defense system over a three-year period. Israel currently has three Iron Dome batteries deployed, with the goal of fourteen in total, and the U.S. funding will assist in the production of the additional batteries.

The Senate Committee on Appropriations on May 24 passed its version of the FY13 State-Foreign Operations appropriations bill, which includes $52.1 billion in discretionary funding for the State Department and foreign aid.

Like its House counterpart, the Senate bill fully funds aid to Israel at $3.1 billion. It contains all current conditions and restrictions on Palestinian aid, including a prohibition on funding if the Palestinians seek statehood recognition at the U.N. and if they form a government with Hamas. Egypt’s aid is linked to its adherence to the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty. New provisions include the extension of loan guarantees to Israel for 3 years and approval of a $1 billion Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund – a newly established fund for the State Department to respond to events in the region.

Also included was a new provision drafted by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), introduced by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) and strongly supported by Subcommittee Ranking Member Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) on UNRWA. The amendment would require the Secretary of State to report to the Committee on the number of Palestinian refugees under UNRWA’s jurisdiction who lived in Palestine between 1946 and 1948 and the number of their descendants.

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House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA), left, and House Democratic Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) co-authored a bill reaffirming and enhancing U.S. policy commitments to Israel's security.

House Votes Overwhelmingly to Enhance U.S.-Israel Cooperation

The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed bipartisan legislation on May 9 reaffirming and enhancing U.S. policy commitments to Israel’s security. The United States-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act of 2012 (H. R. 4133), co-authored by House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) and House Democratic Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), passed by a vote of 411-2.

In addition to urging the expansion of military cooperation between the two countries, the legislation states that it will be U.S. policy to provide Israel with essential military capabilities to preserve its qualitative military edge in the region.

The bill, Rep. Cantor said, “re-affirms Israel’s right to defend itself against threats and puts Congress on the record about America’s long-standing commitment to the U.S.-Israel strategic relationship, a unique and special relationship founded on shared interests and shared democratic values.”

“Today with greater uncertainty in the Middle East and the continued pursuit of nuclear weapons by Iran, close security cooperation between the United States and Israel has never been more important,” Rep. Hoyer said.

The Senate is considering similar legislation, which is sponsored by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Johnny Isakson (R-GA) and currently has 53 cosponsors.