WASHINGTON — The Senate voted overwhelmingly Thursday to place new sanctions on Iran and Russia, setting up a possible confrontation with the Trump administration as it attempts to improve relations with Moscow.
Republican and Democratic senators said the sanctions, approved by a vote of 98-2, are needed to punish Iran for its recent flurry of ballistic missile tests and human rights abuses and to show Russia that its interference in last year’s presidential election and its aggression in Syria will not be tolerated. Voting no were Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
“It truly is astounding what Iran continues to do around the world,” said Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “For a people that are capable of so much, their foreign policy is shockingly counter to their own interest.
“We see destabilizing act after destabilizing act — from missile launches, to arms transfers, to terrorist training, to illicit financial activities, to targeting Navy ships and detaining American citizens — the list goes on and on.
“And it’s past time for us to take steps to protect the interests of the United States and our allies.”
Regarding Russia, Corker said the sanctions send a strong message to Russian President Vladimir Putin while ensuring the Trump administration has the flexibility it needs for its ongoing talks with the Kremlin.
The White House has not said whether President Trump would veto the legislation but has sent signals that it opposes the bill — partly because the measure prohibits Trump from unilaterally suspending or terminating the sanctions. Under the legislation, Congress would have the authority to review and potentially disapprove any attempt by Trump to lift the sanctions.
After Thursday's vote, the White House said it is still reviewing the new Russian sanctions legislation.
The new Iran sanctions also have raised concerns among top officials who served in former president Barack Obama’s administration. They fear the sanctions could jeopardize the landmark nuclear deal struck with Tehran in 2015.
Corker, however, said Iran’s rogue behavior has escalated since the agreement was implemented and that the sanctions would give the Trump administration tools for holding Tehran accountable.
The bill, which awaits an uncertain future in the House, imposes mandatory sanctions on people involved with Iran’s ballistic missile program and those who do business with them. It also applies terrorism sanctions to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and enforces an arms embargo.
The Russian provisions, which resulted from bipartisan talks involving several committees, strengthen existing sanctions against key sectors of Russia’s economy and impose new sanctions on those engaged in cyber activity on behalf of the Russian government.
The legislation also puts in place new sanctions against Russia over human rights abuses and against those who supplied weapons to the regime of Syrian president Bashar Hafez al-Assad.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said the sanctions strengthen the U.S.’s hand against Putin, whose campaign to influence the U.S. election “struck at the very core of our democracy and simply must not be permitted.”
U.S. intelligence officials have warned that Putin and his accomplices will continue to meddle in future elections in the United States and Europe, Nelson said.
“Beware,” Nelson warned. “They’ve laid the groundwork for next year’s (congressional) elections to try to interfere.”