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 planned to sign it.
The White House deemed the bill unnecessary but said it didn't violate the international accord meant to slow Iran's ability to make nuclear arms. Seeking to address Iran's concerns, White House officials emphasized that the administration can and will waive all the nuclear-related sanctions included in the renewal.
The officials weren't authorized to comment by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.
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's 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.
In exchange for Tehran rolling back its nuclear program, the U.S. and other world powers agreed to suspend wide-ranging oil, trade and financial sanctions that had choked the Iranian economy. The White House has been concerned that renewing the sanctions could give Iran an excuse to scuttle the deal by saying the U.S. had reneged on its commitments to sanctions relief.
Last month, after the House passed the renewal, Iran's top leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said Iran would be forced to react if the sanctions were renewed. White House officials said Thursday that Obama remained fully committed to implementing the deal and that the renewal would have no effect at all on the sanctions relief Iran is receiving.
But congressional Republicans and Democrats view the law as valuable leverage and criticized the Obama administration for not being tougher with Iran. 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.
The Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker of Tennessee, said renewing the law will ensure President-elect Donald Trump can reinstate sanctions the Obama administration lifted to implement the Iran nuclear deal.
Corker, who has been mentioned as a candidate to be Trump's secretary of state, said he is in favor of appointing a U.S. official who would "radically enforce" the nuclear agreement. He also held out the possibility the deal could be renegotiated once Obama leaves office.
"My guess is, if cooperation doesn't ensue relative to really enforcing this, significant changes will occur very rapidly," Corker said.
However, several world powers signed onto to the deal and have showed no signs of backing away.
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 writers Josh Lederman and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.