(WASHINGTON) — South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott on Tuesday introduced a bill along with 22 other Republicans and one independent lawmaker to permanently refreeze $6 billion in Iranian oil revenue that was released as part of a deal to free five American detainees.
That money has since come under intense conservative criticism and drawn vocal defenses by White House officials in the wake of a terror attack by the Palestinian militant group Hamas on southern Israel earlier this month.
Iran is a key sponsor of Hamas, and detractors of the U.S. releasing the revenue said that it would ease broader financial pressure on Iran — even as the U.S. has said there is no “hard, tangible evidence” that Tehran was directly involved in Hamas’ attack, which Israeli officials said killed more than 1,000 people in Israel.
Scott’s bill is supported by some in Senate GOP leadership including John Barrasso, Steve Daines and Shelley Moore Capito. It’s also backed by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who left the Democratic Party to become an independent last year.
In addition to blocking the Iranian revenue, the bill would also direct Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to study high-value Iranian assets that are currently blocked by U.S. sanctions and report that information to Congress.
The legislation faces an unclear path to becoming law, given that Washington is divided between the two parties.
In a statement, Scott called the unfreezing of the $6 billion “a grave mistake that created a market for American hostages, emboldened our adversaries, and put a credit on the balance sheets of one of Hamas’s biggest backers.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other officials have pushed back against Scott’s argument, noting that the oil revenue, which had been held by South Korea, hasn’t yet been spent as part of the prisoner release deal, is designated solely for humanitarian purposes and is subject to strict supervision after being transferred to Qatar.
“Some who are advancing this false narrative — they’re either misinformed or they’re misinforming. And either way, it’s wrong,” Blinken said recently on ABC’s This Week.
Last week the U.S. and Qatari governments agreed to again block Iran from accessing any of the money, ABC News reported.
Scott, however, told a group of students at Georgetown University on Monday that the White House reversing course wasn’t enough.
“We should go a step further. We should be aware of every asset over $5 million in any banking system or financial institution that we can get our hands close to that Iran has,” he said.
Speaking with ABC News last week in Iowa, Scott dismissed the “laughable” idea that blocking the Iranian assets could be seen as the U.S. reneging on a deal and hurt future efforts to free wrongfully held Americans abroad.
“If we can get the money back, that will save lives, not cost lives,” he said.
The Biden administration has been under pressure from some Democrats as well. Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin wrote in a post on X, “Until I have full confidence that Iran did not play a role in these barbaric terrorist attacks on the Israeli people, the United States should freeze the $6bn dollars in Iranian assets.”
Other Democratic senators have echoed that, including Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Jon Tester of Montana, Jacky Rosen of Nevada, and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, all of whom, like Baldwin, are up for reelection in 2024.
Scott’s bill is not the only effort to legislatively bar Iran from accessing its oil assets. Last week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said they would introduce a proposal to prohibit the U.S. from releasing any of the funds.
On Oct. 9, Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee led 20 of her fellow Republican senators in a letter to President Joe Biden urging his administration to support Israel in any way possible and “immediately freeze” Iranian bank accounts.
Scott did not sign that letter. His office did not respond to questions about why.
The senator, who continues to poll in the single digits nationally, according to 538’s GOP primary average, has been uncharacteristically aggressive in his rhetoric on the war Israel launched against Hamas after being attacked.
He has criticized rivals like former President Donald Trump, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and fellow South Carolinian Nikki Haley for their own comments about the conflict.
Scott has also taken a hard-line on not accepting refugees from Gaza, the Palestinian territory Hamas controls which is now the focus of much of the fighting, because he can’t tell “who they are.”
“Not on my watch,” he said at Georgetown.
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