Washington, 11 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The White House and the U.S. Congress appear headed for a partisan clash over the issue of Russia's alleged support for Iran's high-technology weapons program.
Both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives are controlled by the Republican Party. Both chambers are determined to punish Russia for allegedly helping Iran build ballistic missiles.
President Bill Clinton, the leader of the Democratic Party, is just as determined to keep Congress from forcing him to impose economic penalties on Moscow.
The confrontation was set in motion late Tuesday when the House voted 392-22 for legislation that calls for unilateral sanctions on any private company or government that provides missile technology to Iran. The sanctions include a freeze on U.S. economic aid. The Senate passed the sanctions bill in May by a 90-4 vote.
The measure now goes to President Clinton for his signature. However, Clinton has promised to veto the legislation, charging that it could harm U.S. relations with Russia.
White House spokesman Michael McCurry said Wednesday that, "there is no doubt," that Clinton will veto the measure.
Said McCurry of the legislation:
"First and foremost the reason is, it comes at a time when we have worked in a very cooperative and successful fashion with the Russian Federation to address many of our concerns with respect to technology transfers and proliferation, especially as they relate to Iran."
The chief sponsor of the legislation is Congressman Benjamin Gilman, (R-New York) the chairman of the House International Relations Committee. Gilman says the Russian government "has nothing to fear if it acts in good faith." He says that Russia should fear sanctions only if it "does not enforce its declared policy," of not transferring technology that could be used for weapons.
The U.S. Constitution requires the president to act on all legislation passed by the Congress. The president must either approve with a signature or veto -- kill -- a measure by sending it back to the legislative chamber where the bill originated. If Congress is in session, the president has ten days to act or the bill becomes law with or without his signature.
Since the White House has made clear that Clinton will veto the bill and send it back to the House, where it originated, the next move will be up to the Congress.
The Congress has the constitutional authority to override a presidential veto. However, for that to happen, the same legislation must pass both the House and Senate by a two-thirds majority in each chamber. Judging by the votes already cast, the House and Senate appear to have enough strength to override the president and force him to make the bill a law.
The veto, however, has been described as one of the most potent legislative weapons in a president's arsenal. Historically, most of the presidents who faced veto overrides were able to muster enough support to win out.
The Republican majority over the Democrats is 228 to 203 in the House and 55 to 45 in the Senate. While the House vote for the sanctions law was overwhelming, there is no guarantee the Republicans can secure 290 votes the next time.
The White House has a powerful lobbying apparatus and Clinton can be expected to use all of his persuasive powers to convince his fellow party members to support him. Clinton only needs 146 votes to win. A Clinton ally, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Missouri) says passage of the sanctions bill would be an admission of failure on the diplomatic front. Sanctions, he says, are premature.
If the Republicans do not score a two-thirds majority in the House, the bill dies without going to the Senate. If it succeeds in the House, it must also pass the 100-member Senate by two-thirds. If Congress fails to take action before December 31, the end of the current session, the bill would die and would have to be re-introduced in 1999.
After Tuesday's House vote, the White House said that, "current law provides an adequate basis for the United States to impose sanctions on foreign entities that further Iranian ballistic missile capabilities."
Under the 1996 Iran and Libya Sanctions Act, the president can impose sanctions on foreign companies that invest $20 million or more a year in Iran's oil and gas sectors. Last May, Clinton decided not to invoke the 1996 law and impose sanctions on Russian, French and Malaysian investors in an Iranian natural gas field.
That decision, combined with persistent reports of Russian aid to Iran's weapons program, angered many congressional leaders who then crafted stronger legislation. The White House, however, said the legislation approved Tuesday is "too broad and vague and would be counterproductive to convincing foreign governments to control missile-related trade with Iran."
The measure would require the administration to apply economic sanctions to companies when there is "credible information" they are trading arms technology to Iran. The measure is aimed at state-owned Russian companies because a number of members of Congress have said publicly that they believe Russia has been the principal source of sensitive technology to Iran.
The legislation, however, would apply to any foreign government or business that supplies ballistic-missile technology to Iran.
It would give the president 30 days to send to Congress a list of violators. Sanctions, including denial of arms export licenses and American aid for two years, would be automatic, although the president would have the authority to waive sanctions in the interest of national security.
The U.S. broke diplomatic relations with Iran in 1979 and the U.S. regards Iran as a supporter of international terrorism.
The legislation would apply to shipments to Iran made after January 22, 1998, the date former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin issued a decree giving Russian officials legal authority to examine the end-use of technology transfers.