House backs tough sanctions on Iran

December 14, 2011 - 7:05 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House on Wednesday endorsed harsher sanctions on Iran as it seeks to weaken Tehran economically and derail its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

The overwhelming votes of 410-11 and 418-2 were largely symbolic, however, as the Senate was not expected to act on the legislation in the few remaining days of the congressional session.

Separately, Congress was poised to back a sweeping defense bill that already included crippling sanctions on foreign financial institutions that do business with Iran's Central Bank, a provision that the Senate backed unanimously last week.

Determined to show their hawkish stand on Iran and pro-Israel credentials, House lawmakers voted for two bills that would strengthen current sanctions while expanding the list of companies and individuals subject to penalties.

The legislation builds on sanctions that Congress overwhelmingly passed — and President Barack Obama signed — last year. Those penalties targeted exports of gasoline and other refined petroleum products to Iran and banned U.S. banks from doing business with foreign banks providing services to Iran's Revolutionary Guard. The United Nations and the European Union have also imposed sanctions on Iran.

"Our fundamental strategic objective must be to stop Iran before it obtains nuclear weapons capabilities and to compel it to permanently dismantle its pursuit of such weapons," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The United States has tried repeatedly to coax Iran into international negotiations with the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany over its nuclear program. Iran contends that its program is designed to generate electricity, not build weapons.

Among the new provisions, the House bills would restrict foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies from doing business with Iran. Bartering is included among the activities that could be sanctioned, and Americans would be prohibited from conducting commercial or financial transactions with the Revolutionary Guard.

Directing its ire at Syria and North Korea as well, one provision would strengthen the prohibition on granting landing rights in the United States to vessels that have visited Iran, North Korea or Syria in the last two years.

The defense bill would impose tough new penalties on Iran, targeting foreign financial institutions that do business with the Central Bank in Tehran. The legislation requires the president to prohibit or impose strict conditions on that financial institution and its ability to maintain corresponding accounts in the United States.

The sanctions appear to be taking a toll in Tehran. Last month, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad acknowledged that the current penalties were impeding Iran's financial institutions, saying, "our banks cannot make international transactions anymore."