(CNSNews.com) – The U.S. House and Senate gave final, overwhelming approval Thursday to what some lawmakers described as the toughest Iran sanctions legislation ever, although others regretted the inclusion of waivers that could allow the president to water down the punitive measures.
They predicted that, in particular, Russian and Chinese energy companies doing business with Iran may benefit as a result.
The House passed the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act by 408-8 (details below), after the Senate had approved it in a 99-0 vote earlier in the day. It now goes to President Obama’s desk for his signature.
Lawmakers passed original versions of the bill six months ago, but at the administration’s request, the legislative push was delayed while the U.S. tried to win support for multilateral sanctions against Tehran for its nuclear activities. That process led to the U.N. Security Council early this month passing a resolution which several lawmakers on Thursday characterized as “tepid.”
The U.S. measure penalizes companies that sell gasoline or other refined petroleum products to Iran or support its domestic refining efforts. Any foreign banks that do business with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) or aid Iran’s nuclear program will be shut out of the U.S. banking sector.
A human rights provision inserted at the behest of Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) requires the president to make public a list of Iranians deemed to be human rights abusers, and then seize their assets in the U.S. and bar them from obtaining U.S. visas.
While speakers on the House and Senate floor described the measures as robust – in McCain’s words, “the most powerful sanctions ever imposed by the Congress on the government of Iran” – some worried that Obama would undercut the effort by exercising waivers.
They pointed out that the administration, like others before it, has not enforced existing legislation passed in 1996 – which provides for sanctions against companies or individuals investing $20 million or more in Iran’s energy sector – so as to avoid confrontation with other governments.
“We have been profoundly unhappy over the years that successive administrations failed to implement the 1996 Iran Sanctions Act,” said Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“The sanctions of 1996 have never been imposed on a single individual or a company,” charged the committee’s ranking Republican, Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
“Only once has a company even been found to be in violation of its provisions, but sanctions were immediately waived by the Clinton administration due to the protests by Russian, French, and Malaysian governments, which did not want their companies penalized for doing business with Iran.”
She said companies from those same countries – Russia’s Gazprom, Total of France, and Malaysia’s state-owned Petronas, “are still providing the Iranian regime a vital economic lifeline through energy-related investments.”
Ros-Lehtinen called the new legislation “a step forward,” but decried the “multiple exceptions and waivers for the president and the executive branch officials. That means that by a stroke of a pen, substantive provisions can be transformed into mere recommendations or options. We must not allow this to happen.”
Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) agreed.
“Good sanctions in this bill are weakened by delays and by the possibility of waiver after waiver,” he said. “For this, the Obama administration gets the main blame. From the beginning it has insisted on excessive leeway to implement new sanctions – it doesn’t want to be forced into dramatic action.”
The administration had wanted the legislation to provide for blanket exemptions for countries deemed to be cooperating with multilateral efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear activities. Instead, the bill allows the president to waive sanctions on a case-by-case basis for a maximum 12-month period, after certifying that the relevant country is “closely cooperating” on Iran. He must also certify that the waiver is necessary to U.S. national security interests.
Royce predicted that because of the waivers, “the many companies from China and elsewhere rapidly building Iran’s energy facilities today will be surely exempted from these sanctions.”
“Whether the United States and our allies can stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear capability is a matter of political will,” said Republican Leader Rep. John Boehner. “Congress will closely monitor whether the Obama administration effectively implements the sanctions.”
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), one of eight lawmakers to vote against the bill, called it counterproductive, arguing that it “allows the regime to rally support by blaming the United States for hardships.”
In the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) urged the administration not to use the waivers.
“The sanctions in this legislation need to be implemented and implemented quickly, not waived,” he said. “The time for further delay is past.”
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) also said it was critical that the legislation be implemented vigorously.
“Iran’s continued unwillingness to disclose fully and completely information about its nuclear program surely means that Iran is either pursuing a nuclear weapon or preserving options to develop a nuclear weapon,” he said. “It is only from full implementation of this law and pressure from the international community that Iran may be dissuaded from this course.”
-- In the House, the bill passed 408-8. Voting against it were Democrat Reps. Brian Baird (Wash.), Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Earl Blumenauer (Ore.), John Conyers (Mich.), Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) and Pete Stark (Calif.); and from Republican Reps. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Ron Paul (Tex.). Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) voted “present.”
-- The Senate passed the bill 99-0. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) did not vote.