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MAHSA Act, a bipartisan Iran sanctions bill, likely dead in the Senate

Sen. Ben Cardin’s office has told Iranian-American activists that he doesn’t plan to move the MAHSA Act forward through the Foreign Relations Committee

Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD)

The MAHSA Act, a bipartisan Iran sanctions bill that advanced through the House with more than 400 votes, appears likely to be dead in the Senate.

Iranian American activists, who rallied a significant pressure campaign in favor of the bill, generating momentum that helped push it through the House, told Jewish Insider last week that they’ve been told by staff for Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that he doesn’t, at this time, plan to bring the bill up for a markup in the committee.

That means the bill is likely dead in the Senate, unless Cardin changes his mind, or the Senate bypasses the committee process.

In an email from Dec. 21, 2023, a staffer in Cardin’s office told a group of activists, “At this time, our office will not be moving forward with this bill,” following an extended back-and-forth over email, a Zoom meeting and multiple petitions urging Cardin to support the bill.

A screenshot of the email was provided to JI by an activist who goes by the pseudonym Hope, and the Twitter handle @HopeIranian. She, and other activists who spoke to JI, requested to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation against themselves and family members in Iran by Iranian agents.

Asked by JI about the status of the bill and Cardin’s plans for it following a protest by a handful of Iranian-American activists outside Cardin’s Senate office building in Washington last week, a spokesperson for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee told JI that there were no updates to share.

The spokesperson did not respond to follow-up questions regarding the office’s communications with the activists.

Hope told JI she was “shocked and horrified” when she received the email from Cardin’s team that they would not advance the bill, and that she felt “betrayed” by a lawmaker with a record as a human rights advocate. 

“I feel sad because I don’t want to let the people inside of Iran down. They need us and we need them. We are two wings of a butterfly flying for freedom of an entire nation, they with their acts of civil disobedience inside Iran and us with our grassroots activism representing their voices,” she continued. “The MAHSA Act must become U.S. law because it represents freedom and democracy not just for Iran, but also for our stifled voices as Iranian Americans by the regime lobby groups and apologists.”

Another activist using the pseudonym Jeana, who attended the protest at Cardin’s office last week, said she was confident the MAHSA Act would pass if Cardin brought it up for the vote. 

“Senator [Cardin] must act now,” Jeana told JI. “This bill is a matter of national security. That’s why the House passed this bill with 410 [yea] votes!”

Melika Bolourchi, another activist involved in the campaign, told JI that the bill’s supporters “will remain committed” to pushing for the legislation.

“MAHSA Act represents a crucial first step in Congress towards justice for innocent lives,” she said. “The urgency of this legislation cannot be overstated, as it seeks to address the ongoing human rights violations and the funding of terrorist groups such as Hamas [and] Hezbollah.”

The bill passed the House by a 410-3 vote last September, but faced controversy as it advanced through the House. Lawmakers had pursued last-minute negotiations about the bill’s language — with some Democrats raising concerns that the bill provided the president too little leeway to waive sanctions for national security reasons — as it moved through the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Lawmakers had left open the possibility of further changes as the legislation moved forward. However, humanitarian concerns had not been raised as a major concern in previous public debate about the bill.

Hope said that Cardin’s office had also largely rebuffed other outreach from the activists about other measures to combat Iran, including legislation to permanently freeze the $6 billion released as part of a hostage deal earlier this year, and a request to hold a hearing.

The bill is supported by AIPAC, in addition to the National Union for Democracy in Iran and United Against Nuclear Iran.

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