WASHINGTON – Punishments appear to be in store for Iran and the Palestinian Authority this month, as Republicans take the reins of Congress.
Unlike a host of domestic initiatives that will divide the House and Senate – and likely the Republican Party itself – policy toward Iran and the PA will likely unify the legislature, requiring its immediate attention as negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program lurch toward a March deadline and Palestinian leaders begin action against Israel at the International Criminal Court.
Discussions are now under way as to whether the PA has violated US appropriations law guaranteeing the flow of nearly $400 million in aid.
That aid, coupled with the transfer of Israeli tax revenue, keeps the struggling PA afloat.
Israel suspended the flow of those tax shekels over the weekend, responding to a policy shift from the PA as President Mahmoud Abbas signed the Rome Statute of the international court on New Year’s Eve.
Current US law requires the PA to refrain from taking “actions” in the Hague against Israel. To Republicans on Capitol Hill, Palestinian affiliation with the ICC will likely qualify as a violation, Senate aides told The Jerusalem Post.
Congress has suspended Palestinian aid in the past, but coupled with Israeli actions, officials in Ramallah now warn the organization will likely dissolve without the funds.
Iran is a greater strategic concern to US lawmakers and is more likely to cause political tension between Congress and the White House.
While administration officials may ultimately agree to a suspension of Palestinian aid, President Barack Obama has made clear he will not accept new sanctions legislation against Iran as negotiations continue over its nuclear program.
Those talks have been extended twice since beginning in 2013, and now face two deadlines: one for a political agreement by March and a second for a comprehensive accord by June.
Intent on influencing the process – and angered by a lack of visibility into it – new leadership in the Senate banking and foreign relations committees are already drafting legislation that will trigger new sanctions should Iran be found in violation of a preliminary agreement, or should talks break down.
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) has already indicated he will allow a vote on the measure, which sources familiar with its drafting expect will have a minimum of 65 co-sponsors.
That would guarantee its passage and a showdown with the president, who has threatened to veto previous iterations of the bill.
An interim agreement reached last fall between world powers and Iran, formally known as the Joint Plan of Action, prohibits the enforcement of new “nuclear-related” sanctions during the negotiations process.
Republicans say their new bill would not implement any new measures, but instead prepares for their immediate implementation should they become necessary.
Republicans may also choose to pass sanctions not related to Iran’s nuclear program, instead further punishing the state for its human rights abuses, or its funding of US-listed terrorist organizations.
In the past, senior Iranian officials have said the US would be in violation of the JPOA if such a law were to pass.
Furthermore, any deal reached in Vienna over the program is now guaranteed to trigger Senate hearings under the supervision of Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Corker drafted legislation last year that, if passed, would have required an up or down vote in Congress approving of any deal with Iran.
Such a vote would not have legal binding. A deal with Iran over its nuclear program will not be classified as a treaty, which is the only form of foreign policy agreement requiring congressional approval.
International agreements are otherwise at the discretion of the executive.
Ultimately, Congress will have to vote to lift sanctions on Iran as part of any comprehensive deal ending concerns with its nuclear work.
Republicans in Congress are so far unimpressed by what they have seen from the negotiating table, and are unlikely to change should a deal be reached.