House, Senate approve tougher sanctions against Iran, Syria

Both houses of Congress approved legislation on Wednesday that would significantly tighten sanctions against Iran's energy, shipping and insurance sectors.

The bill is the latest attempt by Congress to starve Iran of the hard currency it needs to fund what most members agree is Iran's ongoing attempt to develop a nuclear weapons program.

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Iran's sanctions legislation has been very easy to pass in the last several Congresses, and this time it was no different. The sanctions bill was approved in the form of a resolution making changes to prior legislation, H.R. 1905, on which the House and Senate agreed — it passed in an 421-6 vote, and was opposed by just five Republicans and one Democrat.

Members voting against the bill were Reps. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), John Duncan (R-Tenn.), Tim Johnson (R-Ill.), Walter Jones (R-N.C.), Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), and Ron Paul (R-Texas).

Later in the day, the Senate passed the bill by unanimous consent.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said the bill necessarily steps up U.S. efforts to stifle Iran's economic development in a bid to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons that have the potential to strike the U.S. from afar.

"Ultimately, we will all be judged by a simple question: Did we stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapons capability? If the answer is no — if we fail — then nothing else matters," she said.

"History is full of avoidable tragedies, of foolish countries that have allowed their enemies to prepare to destroy them," she added. "The entire world now is fully aware of Iran's true intention. Now is the time to take a stand."

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) agreed that Iran cannot be allowed to develop nuclear weapons, and said Iran continues to show the world why additional sanctions are appropriate.

"There is no better evidence why this bill is so important than the fact that two weeks ago, a terrorist attack in Bulgaria that killed six innocent civilians, five of them vacationing Israelis," he said. "There have been numerous press reports linking Iran to that attack.

"As long as Iran continues to pursue nuclear weapons, call for the destruction of Israel, and provide arms to terror groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, it will face the consequences in the form of sanctions… isolation, and the continuing reality of the option of military action," Hoyer added.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said military action against Iran should never be taken off the table, but said increased sanctions constituted a preferred method to stop the country’s nuclear development, which is viewed as a threat to Israel.

“Ratcheting up the economic pressure against Iran is imperative,” Schumer said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “So that Iran sees it’s not in their best interests economically to continue on this path [of nuclear weapons development].”

The few House members who opposed the bill were also a bipartisan group. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) said Iran poses no significant threat, and that sanctions are an act of war.

"When you put sanctions on a country, it's an act of war, and that's what this is all about," Paul said. "The first thing you do when war breaks out between two countries, is you put sanctions on a country, you blockade the country. So this is an act of war."

Paul went further by saying Iran does not have a history of violence that would suggest the U.S. needs to go on a war footing.

"They don't have a history of invading their neighboring countries," he said. "The last time they were at war was with Iraq, and we bugged Iraq to go into Iran."

Paul was joined by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who agreed that the bill would put the U.S. on a "path to war."

"It's likely that any negotiated deal that would prevent a nuclear-armed Iran would provide for… uranium enrichment for peaceful purposes under the framework of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Weapons Treaty, with strict safeguards and inspections. So we're taking a path here that guarantees that we're put on a glide slope right to war."

The vote came just one day after the Obama administration announced additional sanctions against Iran. But if those sanctions were designed to sap momentum from the sanctions bill, they failed — several members said the U.S. should take even tougher actions if possible against Iran.

"Let there be no doubt, there is more we can do, more that we will do if Iran does not end its nuclear weapons program verifiably and completely," said Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Howard Berman (D-Calif.).

The bill would expand U.S. sanctions under the Iran Sanctions Act, and would sanction any company that deals with Iran's petroleum, petrochemical or natural gas sector. Sanctions would also be applied to companies that offer goods, services or infrastructure to Iran's energy, financial, services, consulting or other industries; insure or re-insure Iran's oil sector; or operate in joint ventures with or insures the National Iranian Oil Company.

Companies that insure the National Iranian Tanker Company, or that sell or lease tankers to Iran, or that transport crude oil from Iran would also be sanctioned. And, it establish a set of sanctions related to human rights abuses in both Iran and Syria.

Schumer said, among other things the bill would require the Obama administration to identify those leaders in Syria that are violating human rights. Schumer said it would also block financial transaction within the United States by some leaders in the Syria government.

The government of Syria has violently cracked down on protesters in the country, causing some world leaders to call for the Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down.

The legislation reflects an agreement struck between both parties, in both houses of Congress. The bill will now be sent to the White House for President Obama to sign into  law.

-- Ramsey Cox contributed to this report

— This story was updated at 7:02 p.m. and 8:20 p.m.

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