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A salvo of rockets is fired by Palestinian militants from Gaza as an Israeli missile launched from the Iron Dome system

Congress squeezes Biden on Iran after Hamas attacks on Israel

Hamas terrorists’ horrific attacks against Israel are renewing bipartisan fury at Iran — and, by extension, becoming a rebuke of President Joe Biden’s posture toward that country.

Republicans and a sizable group of Democrats are urging Biden to freeze $6 billion of Iranian assets that were recently unlocked as part of a prisoner-swap agreement with the United States. In the Senate, there could soon be a filibuster-proof majority backing this approach, led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Citing Iran’s decades-long support of Hamas, lawmakers say the funding should be locked down again. And senators from both parties are already looking into efforts to crack down on Hamas’ financing and potentially levy new sanctions on Iran.

At the same time, the Biden administration is insisting to lawmakers behind closed doors that it doesn’t yet have intelligence suggesting that Iran was aware of or otherwise involved in Hamas’ deadly wave of terrorist attacks. The White House also has maintained that the $6 billion can only be spent on verified humanitarian services, like food or medicine, such as happened in the Trump administration.

Still, the issue has put vulnerable in-cycle Senate Democrats in a bind, leading many of them to join Republicans in calling for those funds to be frozen once again. Politically, there’s little downside to staking out this position.

“As we learn more about Iran’s role in these horrific terrorist attacks against Israel, one thing is clear: we should immediately freeze the $6 billion in assets and use available tools to discourage Iran’s illicit conduct,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), who’s running for Senate.

The politics surrounding Iran and Israel have been fraught territory over the years — especially since 2015, when the Obama-Biden administration negotiated the Iran nuclear deal. That agreement, of course, saw universal GOP opposition, as well as from some top Democrats including now Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Former President Donald Trump abandoned the accord in 2018.

Many of those same voices were critical of the Biden administration’s efforts in 2021 and 2022 to revive the Iran nuclear deal.

The debate over the $6 billion in Iranian assets has swirled Capitol Hill all week, much to the chagrin of the White House and its allies. They say it’s distracting from the need to unite behind Israel and provide the assistance it needs to crush Hamas.

“Of course [Iran’s] hands are not clean here,” Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said on CNN. “But this is a fog of war situation… The focus now needs to be on supporting the Israelis.”

At Biden’s direction, the Pentagon has exercised some authorities that don’t require explicit congressional backing, including sending a carrier strike group to the region, shipping weapons and deploying military assets to advise the Israelis on hostage rescue missions.

But John Kirby, the National Security Council’s strategic communications coordinator, said the administration will soon “run out of runway” without additional funding and authorities from Congress. The White House is expected to make a formal request for aid over the next few weeks, likely grouped in with other national-security priorities including Ukraine.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a top progressive, said after a classified briefing Wednesday that there was a “rush to judgment” among Republicans in the room about Iran’s possible involvement in the planning of Hamas’ atrocities.

“Is it true that Iran has provided support to Hamas over the years? Yes,” Jayapal said. “But I think we have to be very careful about conflating that with Iran being involved in the planning. And I also think we have to be very careful about not inflaming further tensions. We don’t want to be fighting wars in multiple planes in the region.”

Biden himself nodded to these concerns on Wednesday, saying he told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that “with all the anger and frustration, it is important that Israel operates in Gaza according to the rules of war.”

— Andrew Desiderio

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