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Will Iran sanctions bill be watered down at Obama administration’s request?

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As a major Iran sanctions bill moves closer to passage, Capitol Hill observers are beginning to wonder whether the measure will be watered down when the House and Senate get together to agree on final language.

According to a letter jointly sent last evening to leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Robert Menendez (D.N.J) expressed concern that the Obama administration is trying to water down their measure — even though it unanimously soared through the Senate in a vote of 100-0.

The Kirk-Menendez amendment, as authored, would strike hard against Iran’s central bank.

According to a copy of that letter, which I obtained, Kirk and Menendez state:

We understand the Administration has submitted to your Committee a list of proposed changes to the Menendez/Kirk amendment — both "technical fixes" and "alterations." We would note that proposals to delay sanctions implementation and water down the amendment’s penalties are not "technical" in nature and should be rejected.

The lawmakers add that "with the support of every single United States Senator, it needs no alterations." They also remind their colleagues that "time is not on our side. We must impose crippling sanctions on Iran before the regime acquires nuclear weapons."

Naturally, I approached Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, to get a sense of where pro-Israel House Democrats stand on the bill. I asked Berman’s office if he would support the measure as is, or if he would be open to changing it.

His office e-mailed this response:

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As the original author of the House amendment to sanction the Central Bank of Iran, I am pleased that the Senate has taken action on this urgent issue. In the near future, the House will pass the Iran Threat Reduction Act, which includes my amendment. Meanwhile, I will be working with my colleagues in the House, the Senate, and the Administration in an effort to ensure that the final language of the Kirk-Menendez amendment is as tough and sensible as possible and provides a time-frame that corresponds to the rapid progress Iran is making toward developing nuclear weapons.

This statement avoids answering my specific question: Will Berman, a key figure in this debate, support the Kirk-Menendez amendment as is? It’s a critical question.

Seeking more, I asked a source close to Berman to explain the statement. The source explained that, in light of Berman’s original House amendment, it’s pretty clear that he wants to cripple Iran’s central bank. Berman’s measure, for instance, would sanction any bank that does business with Iran — and it doesn’t include a petroleum exemption. Simply stated, it’s pretty tough.

"Based on that, I think you can get a pretty good sense of where Rep. Berman comes down," said the source. "He is not looking to water down the amendment — on the contrary, he wants to maximize its impact."

Naturally, I asked also a GOP aide who closely tracks the issue to comment.

"It’s a really gutsy move for Howard Berman to fall on his sword for the administration," the Republican said. Doing so, leaves Berman "open to attack on playing a role in weakening Iran sanctions in the middle of a Democratic primary against another Democrat who has a pretty good record on this issue."

The source added: "If Howard Berman doesn’t say the words, ‘The House recedes’ then he will be the reason why these sanctions get watered down

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