Senate votes unanimously to renew Iran sanctions law

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The U.S. Capitol stands in Washington, D.C. Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters

The U.S. Capitol stands in Washington, D.C. Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters

WASHINGTON — The Senate moved decisively Thursday to renew a decades-old sanctions law that lawmakers said gives the United States the clout to punish Iran should it fail to live up to the terms of the landmark nuclear deal.

Senators passed the bill unanimously, 99-0, two weeks after the House also approved the legislation by an overwhelming margin of 419-1.

The bill to grant a 10-year extension of the Iran Sanctions Act will be sent to President Barack Obama, who is expected to sign it. Although the White House said the bill is still being reviewed, Obama administration officials said they’ve determined it doesn’t breach the international accord meant to slow Iran’s ability to make nuclear arms. That satisfies a key condition Obama had established for his approval. The officials weren’t authorized to comment publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

“We’ll let you know what the president decides to do with it,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Thursday.

Lawmakers view the sanctions law, which is set to expire at the end of the year, as an important tool for holding Iran accountable for any violations of the nuclear agreement and also as a bulwark against Tehran’ aggression in the Middle East. The law, first passed by Congress in 1996 and renewed several times since then, allows the U.S. to slap companies with economic sanctions for doing business with Iran.

The White House had previously laid out a litmus test for the law’s renewal, saying Obama would reject if it would undermine the nuclear agreement reached last year. In exchange for Tehran rolling back its nuclear program, the U.S. and other world powers agreed to suspend wide-ranging oil and trade sanctions that had choked the Iranian economy.

While the sanctions renewal bill passed by the House and Senate doesn’t violate the terms of the nuclear deal, the Obama administration has said it considers the renewal unnecessary given the president’s other authorities to sanction Iran.

But congressional Republicans and Democrats view the law as valuable leverage. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Thursday that preserving the sanctions law is critical to blunt Iran’s “persistent efforts to expand its sphere of influence” throughout the Middle East. He also criticized the administration for allowing itself to be “held hostage” by Iran’s threats to withdraw from the nuclear agreement.

Congress approved the Iran Sanctions Act 20 years ago to block major foreign investment in Iran’s energy sector. The goal was to deny Tehran the ability to financially support terrorism and build nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities.

Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has argued that keeping the law on the books is necessary if the U.S. wants to retain “a credible deterrent” of putting sanctions back into place should Iran cheat on its obligations under the nuclear agreement.

Associated Press writer Josh Lederman contributed to this report.

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