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News / Nation & World

Congress moving swiftly on bipartisan action to punish Iran after revenge attack on Israel

By FARNOUSH AMIRI, , Associated Press,
Published: April 18, 2024, 9:11am

WASHINGTON (AP) — Iran’s attack against Israel over the weekend has spurred a flurry of bipartisan legislative action in Congress, uniting lawmakers against the country even as the risk of a larger regional war looms.

Several measures introduced and passed in the House and the Senate seek to publicly condemn Iran and punish the Islamic Republic financially. Lawmakers have denounced Iran’s actions, which came in response to a suspected Israeli strike weeks earlier on an Iranian consular building in Syria that killed two Iranian generals.

“The world is on fire, and history will judge us for our action,” said Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, during a news conference this week.

The swift, bipartisan condemnation of Iran has put on sharp display the durability of American support for Israel, even amid growing partisan division over how the country is handling its more than six-month war with Hamas.

Congressional action comes as the Biden administration on Thursday imposed a new round of sanctions on Iran, targeting 16 people and two entities that produce engines that power the drones used in the Saturday attack on Israel. The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control also sanctioned five firms involved in steel production and three subsidiaries of an Iranian automaker accused of materially supporting Iran’s military and other sanctioned groups.

On Capitol Hill, the House this week passed nearly a dozen bills that would, among other things, issue a slate of new sanctions and other financial restrictions against Iran and its leaders. Other legislation looks to prevent current Iranian officials sanctioned from evading those penalties and urge the European Union to “expeditiously” designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization as the U.S. has already done.

On the other side of the Capitol, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday advanced five bills, including ones that targeted Iran for its human rights record and would require sanctions on ports and refineries that receive and process Iranian oil.

“Iran’s direct attack on Israel this week underscores the need to further cut off the Iranian regime’s key revenue streams,” Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire said in a statement. “I urge my colleagues in the Senate to support this bill — which has already passed the House — so that we can send it to President Biden’s desk immediately.”

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A number of the bills had passed the House weeks before Hamas’ deadly attack on Israel in October but have been stalled in the Senate committee. An Israeli offensive in Gaza has since caused widespread devastation and killed over 33,000 people, according to local health officials. Israel’s conduct of the war has revealed the depth of unease among U.S. lawmakers as concerns over the delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza have caused even some of President Joe Biden’s closest allies to threaten conditioning future aid to Israel.

Congressional Democrats have been reluctant to challenge Biden’s handling of the ongoing conflict and related regional tensions that have taken shape, mindful that criticism could further weaken Biden in his reelection campaign against former President Donald Trump.

But the attack on Saturday has proven to consolidate public support for the Biden administration’s quick response as it ordered U.S. forces to help Israel down “nearly all” the 300 drones and missiles that were headed its way.

It also comes as House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., released legislation Wednesday that would provide $95 billion in aid collectively to Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan. The aid package had been held up for months over Republican opposition to continuing wartime funding for Ukraine as it battles Russia. Iran’s attack on Israel added urgency to Johnson’s plans to bring the issue to the floor for a vote.

While the measures targeting Iran have received overwhelming support — with the series of House bills mostly passing with at least 300 votes — there has been a quiet but growing dissent among progressive Democratic lawmakers in both chambers, who warn that legislative efforts could risk further escalation in the Middle East.

“Following last weekend’s unprecedented response by Iran to Israel’s attack on its consulate, the Republican Majority is explicitly leveraging a series of bills to further escalate tensions in the Middle East,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said in a statement Tuesday. “This is a blatant attempt to distract from their own incompetence.”

The strike on Saturday marked the first time Iran has launched a direct military assault on Israel despite decades of enmity dating back to the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Israel has vowed to retaliate against Iran, risking further expanding the shadow war between the two foes into a direct conflict.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, condemned Iran’s attack in a statement but called on his colleagues to respond cautiously. He warned that further U.S. action against Iran could lead to a dangerous escalation that could drag America into a war in the Middle East.

“Cooler heads must now prevail to ensure peace in the region and security for Israel,” Sanders said.