By DONNA CASSATA, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate endorsed stringent new sanctions on Iran's energy and shipping sectors in a fresh attempt to hobble the Islamic Republic's economy and hamper its nuclear ambitions.
Ignoring White House opposition spelled out just hours before the vote, the Senate voted 94-0 on Friday for a package of punitive measures that would end sales and transactions with various Iranian domestic industries.
The sanctions build upon penalties that Congress has passed — and President Barack Obama has implemented — that target Tehran's financial and energy sectors.
Officials in Washington argue that the sanctions have undermined Tehran's economy and robust oil sales, thwarting its suspected pursuit of a nuclear weapon. Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
The overwhelming bipartisan vote on an amendment to a sweeping, $631 billion defense bill reflected fears about the Iranian threat and the United States' unwavering support for its closest Mideast ally Israel.
Shortly before the vote, the powerful pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, urged senators to back the sanctions.
"We must continue to apply unremitting pressure on Tehran until it complies with its international obligations and ends its pursuit of nuclear weapons," AIPAC officials wrote in a letter.
Sens. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who have shepherded sanctions bills through Congress, sponsored the latest package that also would close a major loophole — the ability of Iran to circumvent sanctions and barter oil for precious metals. Turkey has been bartering gold for oil.
"The most recent sanctions are working toward crippling Iran's economy but Iran hasn't quit trying," Menendez said on the Senate floor.
The sanctions would designate Iran's energy, port, shipping and ship-building sectors as "entities of proliferation" and sanction transactions with these areas. The legislation also would penalize individuals selling or supplying commodities such as graphite, aluminum and steel to Iran, all products that are crucial to Tehran's ship-building and nuclear operations.
In a memo from the National Security Council just hours before the vote, the administration argued that the new sanctions were unnecessary, duplicative and "threaten to confuse and undermine" provisions in current law.
Specifically, the administration complained about the omission of waivers that would give the president more flexibility, ambiguities that would make implementation difficult and requirements for congressional reports on thousands of small and mid-size vessels that dock at Iranian seaports that were too burdensome.
The Associated Press obtained a copy of the memo.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., acknowledged the administration's reservations and said he hoped lawmakers could address those concerns in crafting the final version of the bill.
The legislation also would designate Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting and its president as human rights abusers for broadcasting forced televised confessions and show trials.
The president has 90 days from the legislation's enactment to act. The bill does include the authority to waive the sanctions based on national security.
The overall defense policy bill for next year authorizes money for weapons, ships, aircraft and a 1.7 percent pay raise for military personnel. The total is $4 billion less than the House-passed bill, and House-Senate negotiators will have to work out the difference in the closing days of this year.
Late Thursday, the Senate revived a divisive debate over civil liberties and the president's powers as commander in chief, voting that Americans citizens suspected of terrorism and seized on U.S. soil may not be held indefinitely.
A coalition of liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans backed an amendment that said the government cannot detain a U.S. citizen or legal resident indefinitely without charge or trial even with the authorization to use military force or a declaration of war.