House passes bill preventing future cash payments to Iran

The House passed legislation Thursday night to prohibit the U.S. government from making any future cash payments to Iran, a response to the Obama administration’s recent transfer of funds to the country.

Lawmakers approved the measure largely along party lines, though 16 Democrats joined all Republicans in the 254-163 vote. Four of the defecting Democrats are in competitive races this year, including Senate candidate Rep. Ann KirkpatrickAnn KirkpatrickHouse Dems highlight promising new candidates Vulnerable House incumbents build up war chests Cook Political Report shifts 11 House races towards Democrats MORE (Ariz.) and Reps. Brad Ashford (Neb.), Pete Aguilar (Calif.) and Scott Peters (Calif.).

House Republicans sought to use the vote to highlight a cash payment the Obama administration made as part of settling an arms deal made before the 1979 Iranian revolution. Under the bill, the U.S. government could not make cash payments to Iran until the president certifies Iran isn’t a state sponsor of terrorism. 

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“It is not in the interest of the United States to have the regime have cold, hard cash,” said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.), the author of the measure. 

The Wall Street Journal reported that the Obama administration secretly organized an airlift of $400 million in cash around the time four American prisoners were released from Iran.

The seemingly cloak-and-dagger aura surrounding the cash payment prompted Republicans to question whether it amounted to a ransom, which would be a violation of longstanding U.S. policy.

The Obama administration maintains that the U.S. opted to temporarily withhold the already-promised payment delivery so they could use it as leverage in ensuring Iran upheld its side of a prisoner release deal. 

“We took advantage of leverage that we felt we could have to make sure that they got out safely and efficiently,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said at a briefing last month.

Moreover, the Obama administration points to the fact that it previously announced in January that the U.S. would pay Iran a total of $1.7 billion to settle the arms dispute.

“Whether we like it or not, the payment we’re talking about was Iran’s money,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. 

Engel offered an amendment to replace the underlying bill that would only require the president to notify Congress of a settlement payment made to any state sponsor of terrorism — a list that includes Iran and North Korea. It was rejected on a largely party-line vote of 176-238.

President Obama threatened to veto the bill out of concerns it would force the U.S. to violate its international obligations.

A Statement of Administration Policy called the legislation “an ill-advised attempt to respond to a problem — so-called ‘ransom’ payments to Iran — that does not exist, in a way that would undermine U.S. obligations and ultimately benefit Iran at the expense of the United States.”

The House also passed legislation this week that would require the Treasury Department to publish the known assets of top Iranian military and political leaders. Proponents said the measure would offer transparency into how Iranian officials accumulate wealth, while the Obama administration warned it could compromise intelligence methods.