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Iran: Congress Approves Sanctions Bill

  • Kevin Foley

The U.S. House of Representatives has approved legislation to impose sanctions on foreign countries that help Iran develop weapons of mass destruction. The move received widespread bipartisan support despite White House objection. RFE/RL correspondent K.P. Foley takes a look at the issue.

Washington, 15 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Despite White House objections, the U.S. House of Representatives passed with bipartisan endorsement a law that imposes sanctions on foreign countries and individuals that help Iran develop weapons of mass destruction.

The measure is aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. However, it also contains a specific provision that would affect Russia. The legislation would withhold $590 million that the United States is to pay Russia for its participation in the international space station program, until the president determines that Russia is actively opposing proliferation to Iran.

House Science Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin), said "Congress must not look the other way in the face of proliferation, or one day it will come back to haunt us." His committee has jurisdiction over space station funding.

The measure passed with overwhelming support from both House Republicans -- the majority party in the lower chamber -- and from President Bill Clinton's fellow Democrats, who ignored a late appeal from Clinton's White House to drop consideration of the measure. The White House contends the bill will make it more difficult for the U.S. to convince other governments to deny Iran any technology that could be used to develop nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

The administration, in a statement Tuesday, said the president's senior advisers would recommend he veto the bill because it would "have the effect of undermining multilateral support that is vital to effectively fight proliferation." Clinton vetoed a similar bill last year.

The White House said the Russians recently enacted tough export control legislation and adopted a U.S. plan aimed at severing contacts between Russian entities and Iran's missile programs. It said holding up space station money could lead to significant cost increases and delays.

However, House International Relations Committee chairman Benjamin Gilman (R-New York), the principal author of the legislation, said that if the president vetoes the measure, he will seek to muster the necessary two-thirds majority of the 435 legislators to override a presidential veto.

During floor discussion Tuesday, Gilman noted that the House deferred to Clinton last year when Clinton promised that he could resolve the proliferation issue diplomatically. Gilman said:

"Clearly the president overestimated his ability to handle this problem diplomatically and Congress erred in not forcing a vote on this issue. We've learned from that mistake and we don't intend to repeat it."

The measure requires the president to tell Congress every six months about any countries, foreign corporations or individuals which have transferred sensitive nuclear, chemical, or biological technology to Iran. The bill would impose sanctions on violators and could also deny U.S. economic or military assistance.

One of the leading Democratic Party supporters of the measure, Congressman Sam Gejdenson of Connecticut, said the proliferation of weapons technology is a global problem, but he also accused Russia of being responsible for a large share of the technology transfers. He said:

"Clearly there's great frustration here and at the White House over the failure of the Russian government to get to a point where it can control the proliferation of serious weapons of mass destruction. We had been hopeful, frankly, that under Prime Minister Stepashin that we'd see some progress in Russia, and there had been a number of promises made, but with the rate that the Russian governments have been changing we've seen very little progress in an area that is critical to our national security and many of our allies throughout the world."

Congressman Tom Lantos (D-California), a staunch supporter of Clinton's foreign policies who nevertheless voted for the Iran measure, said the legislation is not designed to single out Russia for criticism. He said it would be a serious mistake to pick on Moscow, and he praised Russia for progress he said it has made in controlling technology transfers in the past year. Lantos said the measure would encourage greater international cooperation, not less.

Gejdenson said the legislation is not intended to humiliate Russia but to show Moscow the danger it faces from unchecked proliferation. He said:

"I join with the chairman and many others in this House in offering this legislation which we hope will send a very strong message to the Russian government -- that as difficult as these times are for them, this is an area where they can allow no seepage, where they have to make the effort to stop the loss of these technologies to dangerous countries around the globe."

In writing the legislation, Gilman did bow to some White House and State Department concerns. The legislation reduces the report-writing requirements for the administration. It also gives the president more room to make exemptions to the penalty provisions of the measure.

A similar measure is pending in the U.S. Senate.