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Source: The Hill

Nov 30, 2023

House passes bill to permanently freeze $6B in Iranian funds


The House on Thursday passed a bill that would force the Biden administration to permanently freeze $6 billion in funds it had opened up to Iran earlier this year in exchange for the release of five American detainees.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC), passed in a 307-119 vote.

Ninety Democrats joined almost all Republicans present in voting for the legislation, while 118 Democrats and one Republican, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), opposed it. 

Republicans have slammed the deal since it was announced in August, accusing the Biden administration of kowtowing to Iran and enabling what they consider a terrorist regime to arrest more Americans and take more aggressive action against the U.S. in the Middle East.

Rep. Keith Self (R-Texas) said President Biden has signaled he is willing to “reward hostage-taking” by making a deal with Iran and that Washington must stand against Iranian aggression.

“There is only one language that is understood by our adversaries,” he said on the House floor. “That is strength.”

The White House has defended the decision to unfreeze the $6 billion, arguing it was necessary to release the five Americans who they considered wrongfully detained. The Biden administration also said the money can only be used for humanitarian reasons, though Iran has pledged to use the money however it wishes to.

Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the HFAC, said “not a single penny” of the funds has been spent by Iran and that the funds would not be used for “nefarious purposes,” while arguing reneging on the deal would hurt U.S. global credibility. He also said that Biden “did the right thing” to release the detained Americans.

“He brought five Americans home who were rotting in Iran’s notorious prison and every member of Congress, I repeat, every member of Congress who was aware of these cases wanted our fellow citizens home,” Meeks said. “I ask my colleagues on the other side, what do you say to those families? Do we renege on the deal?”

McCaul said it would be “naive” to assume Iran only uses the money for humanitarian purposes. He added the deal was not “just about the five American hostages,” suggesting the Biden administration may have used the unfreezing of the funds to seek a revived agreement with Iran on limiting the country’s nuclear weapons development. The U.S. has denied nuclear talks were part of the deal.

“There’s something else going on here,” McCaul said. “This is about the undercurrent of a deal we don’t know about.”

The House passed amendments to the bill condemning Hamas and Iranian-backed groups for using human shields and calling for U.S. allies in the Middle East to condemn the groups for antisemitism.

Another amendment, passed along party lines by Republicans, prohibits the use of U.S. federal funds for Iran, while a second party-line amendment states the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen are benefitting from the Biden administration’s failure to condemn them.

The GOP has grown more frustrated with the deal after the Palestinian militant group Hamas invaded southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and taking more than 240 people hostage. Iran is a major funder and backer of Hamas. 

Iranian-backed groups have also clashed dozens of times with U.S. troops across the Middle East since the war broke out, though American troops have not been killed in what has largely been tit-for-tat exchanges of explosive drones and rocket attacks.

The Biden administration announced in October, after the Hamas attacks, that Iran would not be getting the money for the time being.

Officials said at the time they had reached an agreement with Qatar, which is overseeing the funds in its banks to eventually release the money to Iran, to hold the money. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also at the time said Iran hasn’t touched the money yet.

The Thursday House bill, which passed out of the Foreign Affairs Committee earlier this month, would prevent Iran from touching the funds by forcing the Biden administration to implement sanctions on any foreign entity moving to unfreeze the funds for Iran.

The Senate has introduced similar legislation to freeze the Iranian funds but has yet to pass it out of committee.

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