The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats, frustrated with Obama on Iran, float new sanctions proposals

Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, D-Mass.,  has introduced a bill with Rep. Theodore E. Deutch (D-Fla.) and others allowing Congress to speed up the process for imposing certain sanctions on Iran. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Democrats in Congress are losing patience with the Obama administration for failing to respond quickly enough to Iran’s test of a ballistic missile.

So frustrated, in fact, that some lawmakers are introducing legislation to ensure the next time Iran violates U.S. or international sanctions in any way, they don’t have to wait on Obama to act.

Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) is preparing to introduce a bill, along with Rep. Theodore E. Deutch (D-Fla.) and a bipartisan group of co-sponsors, to expedite the procedure for imposing additional sanctions on Iran linked to terrorism, human rights violations, or ballistic missile activities.

“No response is in effect, a response…if responses are nonexistent, ineffective or delayed, those are also responses,” Kennedy said in an interview. “When it comes to the enforcement mechanisms, Congress should be acting with the administration…there needs to be a mechanism to allow for stronger and more rapid response going forward.”

[For more Congress and campaign news, sign up for The Daily 202 — The Washington Post’s new political tipsheet]

Kennedy, who supported the Iran nuclear deal, and Deutch who didn’t, were two of the first Democrats to call on the administration to respond last month to reports that Iran conducted a second ballistic missile test in potential violation of the U.N. Security Council.

Lawmakers are concerned the failure of the White House to rapidly punish Iran over its missile test heralds what some worry will be a lax policy toward implementing the controversial nuclear agreement with the Islamic Republic. The deal is expected to be implemented in January, meaning that certain other measures — such as the U.N. resolution currently governing ballistic missile tests — will no longer be in effect.

Since the test, Democrats in both chambers are clamoring for a stronger U.S. response. On Wednesday, a group of leading House Democrats sent a letter to Obama urging the administration to hurry up and announce punitive measures against Iran.

“The United States and our allies must take immediate, punitive action and send a clear message to Iran that violating international laws, treaties and agreement will have serious consequences,” read the letter, which was signed by Rep. Nita M. Lowey (N.Y.), ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee; Rep. Eliot L. Engel (N.Y.), ranking Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee; Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), who chairs the Democratic National Committee; and others.

“We understand the Administration is preparing sanctions against individuals and entities involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program, and we urge you to announce such sanctions without further delay.”

That appeal follows House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer’s (D-Md.) saying he was “disappointed that the Administration has delayed punitive action in response to Iran’s recent ballistic missile tests,” and 21 Democratic senators signing a letter to Obama last month warning that “if there are no consequences for this violation, Iran’s leaders will certainly also question the willingness of the international community to respond to violations of the” nuclear deal.

Iran has been defiant in its response to the international outcry over the missile tests. Last week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani ordered his country to speed up production of defensive missiles. Iran “will not accept any restrictions in this regard,” he tweeted.

Kennedy and Deutch’s measure would give leaders of either party 60 days to introduce legislation after the president notifies Congress of a “qualifying event” – defined as an act of terrorism, support for terrorism, or something that violates applicable U.N. Security Council resolutions before and after the implementation of the Iran deal. Relevant committees would then have 10 days to report out that bill, or it could go straight to the floor of the House or Senate for a vote.

“With nuclear sanctions relief there will be a very large amount of money available for the support of terrorism,” Deutch said. “Given all of that, we want to have something in place to permit us to move forward quickly in the event they decide to shift the benefits of the nuclear deal to violate existing U.S. and international sanctions.”

Kennedy called the legislation an effort to “signal” to Iran that “the way they can avoid any additional sanctions going forward is don’t violate a [UN] security council resolution.”

There is also a Senate proposal that would set up an expedited procedure for considering sanctions in light of any future terrorism-related infractions.

But some lawmakers may be looking for other solutions as well.

The administration has clearly stated the implementation of the Iran deal does not prevent the United States from enforcing sanctions and punitive measures against Iran for “malign activities” related to terrorism and human rights violations. And thus far, none of the Democrats calling on Obama to act urgently on the missile tests has pushed specific sanctions.

“I expect that whatever the holdup is will be resolved very quickly and we will see sanctions imposed for the violations of the Security Council resolution,” Deutch said.

Leading Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs committee also want to ensure that any congressional response is bipartisan.

At a markup Thursday morning, Democrats voiced their disapproval of a bill to subject to further scrutiny the organizations and individuals upon whom sanctions will be lifted under the Iran deal. It’s a measure that Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) insisted was necessary in light of Iran’s recent ballistic missile tests.

“The question here is one of pushback, given the violation of the U,N. sanctions,” Royce said. “There was an intention, Congress had been notified – and then a decision was made after pushback from Iran not to go forward…It was not supposed to be this way.”

Engel complained that Democrats had not been consulted and warned the measure would go nowhere.

“We want to hold Iran’s feet to the fire, we want to make sure they are sanctions again for other things, nuclear capabilities, their support of terrorism,” Engel said.

While he was “disappointed” that the administration “mentioned that it was going to impose some sanctions on Iran and then seemed to pull it back,” Engel explained, “the only way we can effectively do that [impose sanctions] is in a bipartisan way.”