Congress Investigates Biden Admin for Dropping Sanctions on Assad Ally

Just before Iran talks resume, State Department lifted sanctions without consulting Congress

June 14, 2021

Congress is probing the Biden administration for unilaterally lifting sanctions on a key funder of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s ongoing war, a decision made by the State Department late last week without congressional consultation.

Rep. Bryan Steil (R., Wis.), a member of the House Financial Services Committee, and two of his Republican colleagues are demanding the Biden administration hand over internal documents related to its decision to lift sanctions on businesses connected to Samer Foz, a Syrian oligarch who has worked closely with the Iranian regime to fund Assad’s war machine. The Biden administration also lifted sanctions on several former Iranian government officials and companies tied to the country's illicit oil trade, which has included smuggling crude oil to Syria.

Steil, along with Reps. Jim Banks (R., Ind.) and Joe Wilson (R., S.C.), maintains that these sanctions were lifted as part of an effort to placate Iran as negotiations over a revamped nuclear deal resume in Vienna this week. They are requesting all internal "documents and communications relating to these delistings," as well as information supporting the administration’s claim that sanctions were lifted only after officials verified that the entities were no longer violating American sanctions.

"The timing of the delistings on Foz’s companies as well as on the Iranian entities coming a few days before the next round of nuclear talks with Iran in Vienna raises major questions," the lawmakers write in a letter sent Monday to the Treasury Department and obtained exclusively by the Washington Free Beacon. "We are committed to investigating any and all sanctions relief provided to Iran and its allies."

The latest investigation, spearheaded by Steil, is part of the Republican Study Committee’s ongoing efforts to perform congressional oversight on the Biden administration’s diplomacy with Iran. The RSC is using its oversight authority to press the administration on a range of matters, including its closed-door diplomacy with Iran and ongoing sanctions relief, which is believed to have included a $1 billion ransom payment to Tehran. Republican lawmakers on the House Foreign Affairs Committee say they still have not been fully briefed on these matters by administration officials, despite multiple requests.

"There was inadequate consultation with Congress before these individuals and entities were removed from the [Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons] list," the lawmakers write.

The Treasury Department claimed in its public statement about the delistings that they were approved as "a result of a verified change in behavior or status on the part of the sanctioned parties and demonstrate the U.S. government’s commitment to lifting sanctions in the event of a change in behavior or status for sanctioned persons."

Steil and his colleagues say this explanation is circumspect.

Steil told the Free Beacon that the timing of this sanctions relief raises further questions about the administration’s stated rationale.

"These delistings come as the Biden administration finalizes nuclear agreement discussions with the Iranian regime," he said. "I want answers as to whether these individuals and entities—now removed from U.S. sanctions—are still committing sanctionable conduct like funding the brutal Assad regime in Syria or terrorism around the world. I remain concerned that this is another concession by the United States in an effort to appease Iran and rejoin the flawed Iran nuclear deal."

The lawmakers are requesting all documents and internal administration communications regarding the delisting process and any evidence that was used to justify the claim that the individuals and businesses in question are no longer engaging in sanctionable activity. The lawmakers also want the administration to verify for Congress "that these individuals and entities have not engaged in other sanctionable conduct."

Wilson described the recent action as "unconscionable," saying there is no justification to lift sanctions on one of the main sources of funding to the Assad regime. "Samer Foz profited directly from the brutal Assad regime’s war crimes and destruction, and has built luxury developments on land stolen from Syrians forced to flee their communities," Wilson said.

Banks, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told the Free Beacon the Biden administration is "placating Iran as negotiations resume." The timing of the deslitsings is "suspicious," given that the Treasury Department "all of the sudden, just a few days before the next round of talks, [decided] that these people are complying with the sanctions." Banks vowed to continue pressing the administration for answers.

Update 3:50 p.m.: This post has been updated with comment from Rep. Banks.