Freshman South Carolina lawmaker gains clout with Iran sanctions bill

Freshman Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) has managed to carve out an influential niche on the House Foreign Affairs panel by getting his first bill through both chambers.

With Tuesday's House approval of the “Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act,” Duncan's bill becomes one of only 13 substantive bills from freshman lawmakers that have made it to the president's desk this term. The House had already approved the bill in September, but the Senate made a slight change when it passed it last week.

The bill requires the State Department to draft a strategy for addressing the Iranian threat in the Western Hemisphere while ensuring the United States maintains access to the region's energy supplies. It touches on issues addressed by all three committees the lawmaker sits on: Foreign Affairs, Homeland Security and Natural Resources.

“We needed a strategy,” Duncan told The Hill in a short phone interview prior to the vote. “I didn't think the Department of State was taking this seriously enough.”

ADVERTISEMENT
The legislation comes at a critical time for U.S. relations with Iran. While President Obama in his second-term Cabinet is expected to surround himself with allies who share his vision for multilateral sanctions and direct talks with Iran to get the country to abandon its alleged nuclear weapons program, Congress has run out of patience and is demanding tougher action.

Tuesday's 386-6 vote bears that out: Only five Republicans and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) voted against it.

“Instead of taking a cue from other nations who are trying to open up relationships with Iran,”  Kucinich said in a statement prior to the vote, “we are trying to limit other nations’ ability to develop relationships.”

Duncan disagreed.

“This is about working with our allies, not imposing our will.”

He said he's traveled throughout Latin America and came away convinced of the reality of the Iranian threat. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made five visits to U.S. critics in the region and Iran has been linked to the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people – the worst terrorist attack in the Western Hemisphere before 9/11 – and to a failed plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington using Mexican drug cartels.

Duncan told The Hill he's met with U.S. and local officials in Mexico, Colombia, Paraguay and Argentina during his first term. While some foreign leaders denied that their country was a base for terrorists, Duncan acknowledged, Argentinian Jews and authorities in Colombia and Paraguay's tri-border region near Brazil and Argentina, for example, were well aware of the links between local drug gangs and left-wing guerillas and the Iran-supported Hezbollah movement.

“Whether they want to acknowledge (the threat) or not,” Duncan said, “it's real.”