Senate overwhelmingly okays bill slapping sanctions on Iran, Russia

Trump expected to sign measure into law, despite it handicapping his ability to ease penalties on Kremlin

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell leaves the Senate Floor on Capitol Hill, July 27, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell leaves the Senate Floor on Capitol Hill, July 27, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP)

WASHINGTON — The US Senate approved Thursday a new package of stiff financial sanctions against Iran, Russia and North Korea.

The legislation will now head to President Donald Trump, who is expected to sign the measure into law even though the bill includes provisions that bar him from easing the penalties on Russia without first getting permission from Congress.

Trump has privately expressed frustration over Congress’ ability to limit or override power of the president on national security matters. But he has little choice but to sign the bill due to the enormous support for the measure on Capitol Hill.

Senators voted 98-2 to pass the sanctions bill, two days after the House cleared the legislation overwhelmingly, 419-3.

The sanctions against Moscow are punishment for its meddling in the 2016 presidential election and its military aggression in Ukraine and Syria. They will likely complicate Trump’s attempts to bolster ties with the Kremlin.

The legislation also imposes mandatory penalties on people involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program and anyone who does business with them.

The measure would also apply terrorism sanctions to Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard and enforce an arms embargo. Democrats said the new sanctions would not conflict with the landmark 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.

However, deputy foreign minister and senior Iranian negotiator Abbas Araghchi said Wednesday the bill could “affect successful implementation” of the agreement and reduce Iran’s benefits from it.

“If the enemy breaches parts of the deal, we will breach parts of it,” Rouhani said. “If they breach the entire deal, we will breach it in its entirety.”

“We will reinforce our whole defensive weapons without paying attention to what others say,” he added.

The North Korea-related sanctions bar ships owned by the reclusive nation or by countries that refuse to comply with U.N. resolutions against Pyongyang from operating in American waters or docking at US ports. Goods produced by North Korea’s forced labor would be prohibited from entering the United States.

A version of the sanctions legislation that only addressed Russia and Iran cleared the Senate nearly six weeks ago with 98 votes.

Two administration officials say that Trump is likely to sign the bill, despite ongoing wrangling over language and bureaucracy. Faced with near-unanimous bipartisan support for the bill in both the House and Senate, the president finds his hands are tied, according to two administration officials and two advisers with knowledge of the discussions.

The officials added that the president has been reluctant to proceed with the bill, even after it was revised last week to include some changes that American and European companies sought to ensure that business deals were not stifled by new sanctions. Trump has privately expressed frustration over Congress’ ability to limit or override the power of the White House on national security matters, saying that it is complicating efforts to coordinate with allies — particularly those in Europe that have taken a different approach to sanctions.

The administration officials and advisers demanded anonymity to discuss the private sanctions deliberations. Trump’s new communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, hedged the inevitability that Trump will sign, telling CNN’s New Day on Thursday that the president “may sign the sanctions exactly the way they are or he may veto the sanctions and negotiate an even tougher deal against the Russians.”

“There is a tremendous and unprecedented effort by Congress to assert its influence on Russia and foreign policy because it does not trust the president,” said Elizabeth Rosenberg, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a former senior adviser at the Treasury Department.

“Lawmakers are so distrustful of the administration that they are imposing requirements to conduct congressional review of attempts by the president to roll back sanctions, and in some instances prevent him from doing so,” Rosenberg said.

Lawmakers have been keen to implement a sturdy clampdown on North Korea’s confrontational actions — most recently after its first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile. They’ve also traditionally favored a policy that keeps Moscow in check for its own aggressive measures in Eastern Europe and Syria, as well as its efforts to disrupt elections in the U.S. and across Europe.

“The message coming from Congress on a bipartisan basis is these are hostile regimes and sanctions are warranted — sanctions are called for,” Ryan told reporters Thursday. “And we want to make sure that they’re tough sanctions and that they’re durable sanctions. It took us a while to figure this out and come together to get the policy right . . . and we all agreed we believe these tough hostile regimes deserve sanctions and this is the bipartisan compromise that produces that.”

Trump hasn’t threatened to reject the bill even though Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other senior administration officials had objected to a mandated congressional review should the president attempt to ease or lift the sanctions on Russia. They’ve argued it would infringe on the president’s executive authority and tie his hands as he explores avenues of communication and cooperation between the two former Cold War foes.

Russia’s ambitions to be on equal footing with the U.S. suffered a setback in 2014 when the Obama administration authorized sanctions against sectors of the Russian economy, including financial services, energy, mining and defense. The administration also sanctioned people in Putin’s inner circle accused of undermining peace in Ukraine. Add to that falling oil prices and a weak ruble, and Russia’s economy was shackled.

Sanctions relief is important to Russia’s broader objective of superpower status, shown by its bullish Syria policy. Syria’s Russian-backed military made major gains in rebel-held eastern Aleppo in recent days and rebel resistance appeared to be crumbling. While Moscow and Washington are continuously at odds over Syria, the Obama administration did not impose any Syria-related sanctions.

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