As House-approved bill targeting Iran nuclear deal goes to Senate, Rep. Steve Russell says it holds Obama to commitments he already made

Steve Russell (US Congress)
Steve Russell (US Congress)


WASHINGTON — After the US House of Representatives approved a Republican-led bill to give Congress more oversight over implementation of the Iran nuclear deal, and after President Barack Obama vowed to veto the legislation should it pass the Senate and reach his desk, the bill’s author maintains the substance of his measure is already in line with promises the president made when selling the deal.

The Iran Terror Finance Transparency Act, which is authored by Rep. Steve Russell (R-OK) and which passed the House last week by a vote of 246-181, requires the Obama administration to provide Congress with certification that any individuals and entities whose sanctions are lifted are not financiers of terror, human rights violators or involved in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. It would also give Congress more oversight over the deal, as the administration would be mandated to submit quarterly reports regarding its sanctions regime.

The House first passed the legislation in January, but 137 members didn’t get to vote, drawing frustration over the process. Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy then decided to void the bill and reschedule it in February.

“Before the sanctions can be lifted, [Obama] would have to certify why they are coming off and provide justification,” Russell told The Times of Israel in an interview. “For example, suppose that some bank was on the terrorist sanctions list and then new evidence shows that that bank really wasn’t engaged in funding terror, that it was in fact some other player and therefore they are asking for this bank’s removal from the sanctions list. Fine. We just want certification and justification.”

The White House, however, strongly disagrees with Russell’s description of the legislation’s impact. In a statement released after the bill passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee in January, the administration stressed that such a requirement “would prevent the United States from implementing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) by tying the Administration’s ability to fulfill US commitments under the deal to unrelated, non-nuclear issues.”

Russell’s bill, the White House warned, “could result in the collapse of a comprehensive diplomatic arrangement that peacefully and verifiably prevents Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Such a collapse would remove the unprecedented constraints on Iran’s nuclear program that we achieved in the JCPOA, lead to the unraveling of the international sanctions regime against Iran, and deal a devastating blow to America’s credibility as a leader of international diplomacy.”

Iranian technicians work at a facility producing uranium fuel for a planned heavy-water nuclear reactor, outside Isfahan, 255 miles (410 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, in 2009. (photo credit: AP/Vahid Salemi)
Iranian technicians work at a facility producing uranium fuel for a planned heavy-water nuclear reactor, outside Isfahan, 255 miles (410 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, in 2009. (photo credit: AP/Vahid Salemi)


Implementation of the deal began on January 16 as Obama signed an executive order lifting nuclear-related sanctions on Iran but held in place sanctions that targeted its support for terrorism, ballistic missile activities, human rights abuses and destabilizing activities in the region.

Obama also levied a new set of modest sanctions against Iran the day after the agreement went into effect on 11 individuals and entities tied to Iran ballistic missile testing that took place previous the month.

But Russell, a native of Oklahoma who, before getting into politics, had a 21-year career in the US Army that included stints in Afghanistan and Iraq and serving in the unit that captured former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, wants a mechanism in place that monitors the sanctions regime more closely.

“I developed the bill last July after reading the joint agreement,” Russell said, referring to the month the terms of the JCPOA were reached between Iran and the P5+1 powers. “I went through every single page, every single annex, every single list for sanctions relief and a couple of individuals caught my eye.

“I thought, well, gosh, these are people who we were dealing with in Iraq who killed US soldiers. Why would they be earmarked for relief, when I know they’re violators of terror? That caused me to think, how many others are on this list? And so we began to work with the Treasury Department and other government agencies to look into other violators who would be removed from other sanctions lists, and we identified over 50.”

The first name to jump out at Russell was Qasem Soleimani, commander of the elite branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards responsible for foreign operations. “I mean, this is a guy who I know for a fact — from my previous life as a combat soldier — was responsible for the death of American soldiers due to explosive devices in Iraq,” Russell said.

“He was furthering the manufacture of them, the proliferation of them, with explicit orders that these explosive devices should be used only on American soldiers,” he went on. “This man was responsible of hundreds of soldiers’ deaths, some of whom were friends of mine that I lost. That’s what motivated me to dig further and see how many of these bad actors were gonna be lifted from sanctions.”

Seeing Soleimani and others placed in the docket for sanctions relief prompted Russell, who does not sit on the Foreign Affairs Committee, to pen legislation that would force “more transparency” on the way the sanctions regime is managed against Iran, particularly in regard to those who are inclined to carry out nasty designs in the region, he emphasized.

“These are individuals and entities that have violated human rights, have committed terrorist acts or promoted it or funded it, and they are on our other sanctions list for these categories,” Russell said. “So we’re taking the president at his word that if someone is a terrorist or human rights violator that they will remain sanctioned, but we want to hold him to that.”

“The president has stated repeatedly when he was negotiating the joint agreement that those entities and individuals would not be affected by the joint agreement,” he added. “He’s on record saying that many times. The fact that the president already conceded that there are people who shouldn’t have sanctions lifted, and has earmarked them, tells you that this bill is correct, that it’s good for national policy.”

Iranian Revolutionary Guards al-Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. (YouTube/BBC Newsnight)
Iranian Revolutionary Guards al-Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. (YouTube/BBC Newsnight)

Russell’s bill is not expected to become law, despite the Republicans’ control of both houses of Congress, as Obama has said he will veto it. While support for the bill in the House did include some Democrats, the vote was mostly down partisan lines, and many Democrats have indicated they believe it is designed more with the intention to scuttle the agreement than improve it.

New York Rep. Eliot Engel, ranking member on the Foreign Affairs Committee who opposed the Iran nuclear deal, expressed concern over recent Iranian activity, but nonetheless said he found Russell’s bill unrealistic to bring to fruition. “We should go back to the drawing board rather than ramming through a partisan measure,” he said.

Russell, on the other hand, wants to keep pushing to deliver the additional Congressional supervision.

“It’s not only a matter of wanting to ensure that those with a bad history and nefarious designs don’t get relieved of sanctions,” he insisted. “It’s wanting to ensure that the president stands by his commitment that these people are not affected by an agreement that’s supposed to only address that which is nuclear-related.”

As reported by The Times of Israel