Cardin Blocks Bipartisan Bill To Sanction Iranian Leaders for Human Rights Abuses

Activists slam Dem senator for stalling bill that overwhelmingly passed in House

Ben Cardin (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
January 2, 2024

Democratic senator Ben Cardin (Md.) is blocking the upper chamber from advancing a bipartisan bill that would sanction Iran's leadership for its role in mass human rights crimes, prompting outrage among Iranian-American dissidents who have been lobbying in favor of the legislation for months.

Cardin, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, informed activists at the end of last year that he would not be moving forward with the MAHSA Act, named after 22-year-old Iranian woman Mahsa Amini, who was killed by Tehran's morality police in September 2022. Amini's death sparked nationwide protests that are still percolating more than a year later.

The bill, which overwhelmingly passed the House last year with more than 400 votes, would sanction Iran's supreme leader and his inner circle for decades of human rights abuses. Those include the murder and torture of anti-regime dissidents, including those detained by the country's security forces for protesting Amini's murder.

As the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's head, Cardin has the power to stall the bill and prevent it from coming up for a full vote in the chamber. The senator's office in a Dec. 21 email informed Iranian-American activists of the decision. Cardin's decision to delay the legislation prompted outrage among Iranian dissidents, who have been championing the bill as a centerpiece of their efforts to increase American pressure on the Islamic Republic.

"At this time, our office will not be moving forward with this bill," Cardin's staff wrote to Iranian-American activist Nick Nikbakht, who shared the correspondence on X, formerly Twitter.

"Killing innocent civilians in Israel, Ukraine & Iran is not enough for Cardin," Nikbakht wrote alongside a screenshot of the email, which was sent to the activist after more than 100 of the senator's constituents organized a joint letter in support for the MAHSA Act.

Nikbakht said that he and other Iranian-American activists met with Cardin's office, as well as other senators from both sides of the aisle, to garner support for the sanctions bill. The activists were trying to ensure that the bill made its way through the Senate after it received overwhelming bipartisan support in the House. These efforts, Nikbakht said, are now stalled because of Cardin.

"Despite the persistent advocacy, multiple meetings, and heartfelt pleas by Maryland constituents who sent letters, we've seen no movement from Senator Cardin and, more recently, been informed that they will not be moving forward with the bipartisan human rights bill," Nikbakht told the Free Beacon.

It is unclear why Cardin is blocking the bill. His office did not respond to a Washington Free Beacon request for comment on the matter.

Rep. Jim Banks (R., Ind.), one of the MAHSA Act's sponsors in the House, said that with Hamas waging war against Israel with primary support from Iran, now is the time to hold the Islamist regime's leaders accountable.

"Senate Democrats are delaying Israel aid while refusing to sanction Iran, the leading state backer of terrorism and the sworn enemy of Israel," Banks told the Free Beacon. "We're letting our enemies off the hook and leaving our allies in the lurch. It's a recipe for chaos."

Iranian activists like Nikbakht have been lobbying in favor of the MAHSA Act since well before violence in the Middle East broke out.

He and other activists are also championing a range of Iran-related bills that have already passed the House and are stalled in the Senate. These bills include legislation that would level additional sanctions against Tehran's leadership and target the regime's funding streams.

Cardin's office has been garnering headlines after a now-fired aide was caught on film engaging in sex acts inside a Senate hearing room. The former aide, identified in news reports as Aidan Maese-Czeropski, also hurled anti-Semitic slogans such as "Free Palestine" at Jewish congressman Max Miller (R., Ohio), the Free Beacon reported late last year.