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Senate passes sweeping sanctions bill targeting Iran, Russia

  • The Senate approved a sanctions bill punishing Iran and Russia.
  • The legislation passed 98-2.
  • U.S. intelligence agencies determined Moscow had deliberately interfered in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 28, 2017.
Sergei Karpukhin | AFP | Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 28, 2017.

A frequently polarized Senate found common ground Thursday as Republicans and Democrats joined forces to approve a sweeping sanctions bill that punishes longtime adversaries Iran and Russia with an array of financial penalties.

The bipartisan legislation passed overwhelmingly Thursday, 98-2, more than five months after U.S. intelligence agencies determined Moscow had deliberately interfered in the 2016 presidential campaign. Lawmakers have long sought to hit Iran with more sanctions in order to check its ballistic missile program and rebuke Tehran's continued support for terrorist groups.

The decisive bipartisan vote could put the Trump administration in a bind. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has offered only tepid support for the Russia sanctions package. Yet those penalties are melded with the Iran punishments. So the White House would have to reject stricter punishments against Iran, which it favors, in order to derail the Russia penalties.

The legislation, which now moves to the House, also gives Capitol Hill a much stronger hand in determining Russia sanctions policy. The bill would require a congressional review if President Donald Trump attempts to ease or end penalties against Moscow.

The review mechanism was styled after 2015 legislation pushed by Republicans and approved overwhelmingly in the Senate that gave Congress a vote on whether President Barack Obama could lift sanctions against Iran. That measure reflected Republican complaints that Obama had overstepped the power of the presidency and needed to be checked by Congress.

Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the intelligence committee, said it cost Russia very little to cause chaos by meddling in the elections of other countries, including the United States, France and the Netherlands.

"You add up, without firing a shot or shooting a missile, the amount of disruption the Russians have caused in Western societies at large -- all that for less than 5 percent of the cost of a new aircraft carrier," Warner said. "Pretty good rate of return."

Senators insisted the new Iran sanctions won't undermine or impede enforcement of the landmark nuclear deal that Obama and other countries reached with Tehran two years ago.

Obama's former secretary of state, John Kerry, had raised that prospect on the eve of the Foreign Relations Committee's vote on the bill last month. In a series of tweets, Kerry urged lawmakers to "tread carefully" in pushing ahead with new Iran sanctions in the wake of President Hassan Rouhani's re-election to another four-year term. Rouhani is a political moderate who defeated a hard-line opponent.

The Senate bill imposes mandatory sanctions on people involved in Iran's ballistic missile program and anyone who does business with them. The measure also would apply terrorism sanctions to the country's Revolutionary Guards and enforce an arms embargo.

Russia's interference in the 2016 campaign has rocked Washington and led to multiple investigations, including special counsel Robert Mueller's inquiry into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.

Yet Trump hasn't sought to rebuke Moscow. He's instead castigated his own intelligence community and rejected its assessment that Russia's hacking and disinformation campaign was intended to aid his candidacy.

The measure calls for strengthening current sanctions and imposing new ones on a broad range of people, including Russians engaged in corruption, individuals responsible for human rights abuses and anyone supplying weapons to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Broad new sanctions would be imposed on Russia's mining, metals, shipping and railways sectors.

The measure would punish individuals who conduct what the senators described as "malicious cyber activity on behalf of the Russian government." Also covered by the sanctions are people doing business with Russian intelligence and defense agencies.

The Senate bill also would cement in law a series of executive orders signed by Obama and aimed at punishing Russia for aggressive behavior, including its 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for separatist rebels in Ukraine's east.

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, the chairman of the Banking Committee, said the legislation expands the Ukraine-related sanctions to ban Western companies from being involved in Russian energy exploration projects in the Arctic and elsewhere.

The energy-specific sanctions generated sharp criticism from Germany and Austria, which said the penalties could affect European businesses involved in piping in Russian natural gas.

In a joint statement, Austria's Chancellor Christian Kern and Germany's Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel cited a section of the sanctions bill that calls for the United States to continue to oppose the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would pump Russian gas to Germany beneath the Baltic Sea.

"However, we can't accept the threat of illegal and extraterritorial sanctions against European companies," they said.

Half of the cost of the new pipeline is being paid for by Russian gas giant Gazprom, while the other half is being shouldered by a group including Anglo-Dutch group Royal Dutch Shell, French provider Engie, OMV of Austria and Germany's Uniper and Wintershall.

Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., voted against the sanctions package.